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LANDSCAPE PHOTOGRAPHS ARE HISTORY: A book forward

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The book 'Around the world in 14 days'

The book Around the world in 14 days

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Recently I was asked to write an introduction for a limited edition book to compliment an exhibition of landscape photography entitled, Around the World in 14 Days: how the landscape unites us. The project featured seven contemporary Australian and international photographers, and was coordinated by Dawne Fahey of the FIER Institute with Sandy Edwards contributing to the image selection. The assembled body of work presented insights into how photographers ‘read the landscape, both visually and psychologically through their images.’

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The photographs, created in Australia, Asia, New Zealand, USA and Colombia are intended to inspire viewers to consider how ‘elements effecting the landscape unite us, regardless of our differences or the distances that occur between us.’ Through the photographs there is also an intention that the ‘poetic fragments presented by the work will connect with the viewer’s own memories, experience, or sense of place.’

The exhibiting photographers are: Ann Vardanega (Australia), April Ward (Australia), Beatriz Vargas (Colombia), Gavin Brown (Australia), Michael Knapstein (USA), Robyn Hills (Australia) and Pauline Neilson (New Zealand) and the exhibition and book are on show at Pine Street Gallery, 64 Pine Street, Chippendale, Sydney until May 31, 2014.

See more at: http://www.pinestreet.com.au and http://fier.photium.com/around-the-world-in-14 – sthash.QPto0nz4.dpuf

The exhibition and book launch took place on May 20, 2014 at the gallery.

My essay discusses issues that relate to the premise of the exhibition as well as some personal observations of the idea of the photographer in the landscape. The essay is presented here and at the end of the post I have included a selection of images and installation photographs of the exhibition.

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All landscape photographs are history

 

It is vain to dream of a wildness

distant from ourselves. There is none such.

In the bog of our brains and bowels, the

primitive vigor of Nature is in us, that inspires

that dream.

 

Henry David Thoreau, journal, August 30, 1856 [i]

 

Around sunset, Northern Territory time, a gathering of photographers will assemble in the central Australian desert and witness the now iconic sunset at Uluru. What they encounter will be a lived experience and there can be no doubt that cameras, both with and without telephony capability, will record the moment. Their images will bear metadata of the shutter speed, aperture, camera brand and model, the time, date and perhaps even its geolocation. These images will be cast into the Internet as evidence for friends and family to see – a private experience shared and made transferrable by technology.

What then of the subject of their gaze and activity – the landscape? For this rock in the desert, the next day will be a repeat of this photo ritual, and each day after, it will be repeated again and again. Does Uluru wait for its activation at each sunset and each shutter’s click? This landscape has experienced a few hundred million years of sunsets and its current fame as a photo celebrity, is a mere blip in its history. Every day will be different and thousands of days, well, not much change. However, today’s photograph, even a split second after its capture, is history.

For a number of years I have cultured the belief which was informed by a statement attributed to photographer Minor White: ‘No matter how slow the film, Spirit always stands still long enough for the photographer it has chosen.’[ii] My variation is that that landscape reveals itself to the photographer of its choosing. Writer and critic John Berger adds to this discussion by proposing that there is a ‘modern illusion concerning painting … is that the artist is a creator. Rather he is a receiver. What seems like creation is the act of giving form to what he has received.’[iii] Could it be then that the landscape is the director and commissioner of the image that the painter or the photographer makes, and that the photographer – the right photographer – is merely the vehicle for the landscape’s transformation of itself into an image?

Like portraits that have been made since the beginning of photography, and the documents of human endeavour, commerce, existence and experience – time, or rather the passage of time, has granted then their relegation to past. Each photograph in this book is then a history image. The moment and space depicted wrenched from the continuum of time by whatever forces brought together the photographer and the landscape. A landscape image at that moment of capture is at once the subject photographed and also a time machine. Viewed on its own by its maker the photograph can be a comfortable aide memoir, and operate just as a photo of a loved one or a family wedding would do in its frame on the mantelpiece – the photo exists, and so too the remembrance of subject it represents.

But photographs are more than things; they are experiences. Photographer Ansel Adams attributed special values and meaning to his landscape photographs and sought to represent the landscape as being more than what it was physically. Simon Schama in his book Landscape and Memory cites Adams as commenting that: ‘Half Dome [in Yosemite National Park] is just a piece of rock … There is some deep personal distillation of spirit and concept which moulds these earthy facts into some transcendental emotional and spiritual experience.’[iv] Adams inspired the American nation and created a tradition of environmentalism and black and white photography that continues today.

For Australian wilderness photographers Adams’ ‘emotion and spiritual’ connection with the landscape is salient. In the book Photography in Australia Helen Ennis discusses how photographers of this genre engage with their landscape subjects. She quotes Tasmanian photographer Peter Dombrovskis entering a ‘state of grace’ on bushwalks when, ‘days away from “civilization”, he felt what he described as, “a sense of spiritual connection with all around – from widest landscape to the smallest detail”’.[v] Ennis also comments that wilderness photographers use a range of techniques to ‘lift the experiences of viewing the photographs into a realm that goes beyond the human exigencies of normal daily life.’[vi]

In a book such as this, as we turn the pages, what is presented to us is the photographer’s concept or story encoded in visual form. As with Berger this may constitute the next generation of ‘giving and receiving’. They may have made the photograph/s with a specific objective in mind – a narrative angle, the idea of showing something that stirred them that they wanted to share – or – from the earlier discussion, what the subject wanted revealed. But in the space between the giver (the photographer and this book), and the receiver (you, the viewer), another hybrid narrative emerges. The photograph acts as a stimulus on the viewer and an idiosyncratic response is generated. Roland Barthes uses the term ‘detonate’ to describe being in front of a photograph. In Camera Lucida he comments that: ‘The photograph itself is no way animated, … but it animates me: this is what creates every adventure.’[vii]

In photographs we are not so much connected or united with the landscape, but rather the experience of the landscape and the trees, rivers, blades of grass and rocks that are represented in images. In effect we are united by the landscape of photography and the gift that we can share through it. We can then, through photographs enter into a Barthesian adventure. Perhaps these landscape photographs are more than history – they are: an experience shared, an unexpected encounter, an adventure. In your turning the pages – then pausing to view each group of images, to contemplate and consider the communiqué stimulated by them, these photographs become part of your history, your experience, and your adventure as well …

 

Dr Doug Spowart   April 17, 2014

[i] Schama, S. (1995). Landscape and Memory. London, HarperCollins, epigraph, n.p.
[ii] http://www.johnpaulcaponigro.com/blog/12041/22-quotes-by-photographer-minor-white/
[iii] Berger, J. (2002). The Shape of a Pocket. London, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, p.18.
[iv] Schama, S. (1995). Landscape and Memory. London, HarperCollins, p.9.
[v] Ennis, H. (2007). Exposures: Photography and Australia. London UK, Reaktion Books Ltd, p.68.
[vi] ibid.
[vii] Barthes, R. (1984). Camera Lucida. London, UK, Fontana Paperbacks, p.20.

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The exhibition 'Around the world in 14 days' invitation

The exhibition invitation

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The exhibition 'Around the world in 14 days' in the Pine Street Gallery

The exhibition in the Pine Street Gallery

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A photograph by Pauline Neilsen from the exhibition 'Around the world in 14 days'

A photograph by Pauline Neilsen

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Four photographs by Michael Knapstein from the exhibition 'Around the world in 14 days'

Four photographs by Michael Knapstein

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Two photographs by Gavin Brown from the exhibition 'Around the world in 14 days'

Two photographs by Gavin Brown

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Two photographs by Robyn Hills from the exhibition 'Around the world in 14 days'

Four photographs by Robyn Hills

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A photograph by Ann Vardanega from the exhibition 'Around the world in 14 days'

A photograph by Ann Vardanega

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Two photographs by April Ward from the exhibition 'Around the world in 14 days'

Two photographs by April Ward

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A photograph by Beatriz Vargas from the exhibition 'Around the world in 14 days'

A photograph by Beatriz Vargas

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Doug Spowart with Ann Vardanegra, Dawne Fahey and Pauline Neilsen

Doug Spowart with Ann Vardanega, Dawne Fahey and Pauline Neilsen

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Screen Shot 2014-05-27 at 1.34.23 PM

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The photographers retain all copyright in their photographs. Some texts are derived from exhibition documents. Text and installation photographs © 2014 Doug Spowart and Victoria Cooper

 

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BACK STORY: The Icons & Revered Australiana Show

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ICONS Logo

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The Icons & Revered Australiana show: Twenty – Five Years On

The ICONS on ICONS exhibition at the Cobb+Co Museum in Toowoomba features 5 local photographers. For the show I have selected 26 gelatine silver photographs drawn from my archive. They were originally prepared for the Australian Bi-centennial celebrations in 1988 – 25 years have elapsed and yet the images are as fresh and evocative as ever. For me the work represents an important aspect of my photographic and photobook work – where the narrative of life and culture is expressed through a set of images and sometimes accompanied by a complimentary text.

So here is the back story of my Icons & Revered Australiana

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Doug Spowart

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I have had a lifetime interest in the Australian idiom, slang and its stories. This body of work represents the culmination of a personal investigation into what are seminal identifiers of our culture and the way the Australian condition has shaped our language. In my early teenage years I read most of John O’Grady’s books like They’re a weird mob and Gone Fishin. His dictionary of Australian-isms Aussie English was a particular favourite. At that time I would encounter people, mainly older people, who spoke using the language defined by Sidney J Baker’s or what Afferbeck Lauder called Strine, (a condensation of Australian with an emphasis on the latter part of the word = STRINE).

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Throughout my life I have travelled around Australia, firstly as a child with my family then later with friends and from the1980s onward as a tour leader on outback safaris. I always felt close to the land and the Australian condition and was fascinated by the stories and the vernacular language by which it was described. I met outback characters including songwriter/performer Ted Egan, before his Northern Territory Governor commission, who immortalised these Australian-isms and stories in song. I was also influenced by a library of photographers like Jeff Carter, George Farwell, Douglas Baglin and perhaps even Rennie Ellis who made photographs and told stories in their photobooks. Inspiration also came from Barry Humphreys, Walkabout magazine and the works of painters like Russell Drysdale, Hans Heysen and Sydney Nolan.

From my experiences I decided to make a selection of things Australian that I considered were so embedded in culture that they could be considered as icons and revered with a religious fervour. I resolved to call the exhibition Icons & Revered Australiana. To provide an extra personal challenge to the project I limited my selection to an A to Z list representing a range of ideas, subjects, myths and localities. I then embarked upon a 4 state and territory journey to make images. While most images were deliberate and targeted some photographs were made along the way as opportunistic discoveries. I do remember specifically driving into Sydney, putting a wire coat hanger under my arm and walking down to the Sydney Opera House to photograph the bridge.

The Icons show was presented at Imagery Gallery in March 1988 and I think, well received. However the Courier Mail critic, a friend of mine of the time, was not impressed – his headline read There’s better work to come! I did ponder the thought that there may have been a sub-plot to his review. The exhibition went on to show at another venue in Queensland and individual images, such as the BIG Coat Hanger received accolades, was published in many journals, and went on to be one of my signature images. After the show was over the exhibition was de-framed and the mounted images sequestered away in archival solander boxes.

But what of this current iteration of the Icons & Revered Australiana body of work? Twenty-five years may have elapsed and yet these pre-digital gelatine silver images are as fresh as ever – a testimony to the special nature of infrared and black+white analogue photography. In revisiting the original catalogue text, I’ve re-connected with the thread of humour, irony and pastiche that has always run through my work.

While those who knew these aspects of life, culture and language intimately, and practised it daily, may have long passed on, Icons & Revered Australiana may still resonate with contemporary audiences. I do not expect that everyone will begin to use terms like ‘Bonza’, ‘Sheila’ and ‘Wouldn’t be dead for quids’, although we do encounter this kind of vernacular language in contemporary song writing, (particularly in country and western music), prose and poetry. And for a while we enjoyed it in the wonderfully expressive Strine of Steve Irwin.

These Icons and Revered Australiana are just the tip of the great myriad of things Australian. Deep down, within us, is a kind of ‘knowing’ of our Australian-isms, and how they have defined us and continue to define us as a people and a country.

Doug Spowart

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SO HERE THEY ARE: My ‘A to Z’ Icons & Revered Australiana

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A  Ayers Rock – Revered as the largest monolith in the world, Ayers Rock is now known by its traditional Aboriginal name Uluru.

A = Ayers Rock – Revered as the largest monolith in the world, Ayers Rock is now known by its traditional Aboriginal name Uluru.

B  The Black Stump. It was once believed that the black stump was the limit of possible human habitation beyond which nothing existed but useless land and desert.  Today, it’s revered by a roadside stop featuring a Black Stump storyboard and black painted stump icon, a car park, BBQ and toilet.  And lots of people have come to live on ‘the other side’.  Near Coolah, New South Wales.

B = The Black Stump. It was once believed that the black stump was the limit of possible human habitation beyond which nothing existed but useless land and desert. Today, it’s revered by a roadside stop featuring a Black Stump storyboard and black painted stump icon, a car park, BBQ and toilet. And lots of people have come to live on ‘the other side’. Near Coolah, New South Wales.

C  The Big Coat Hanger – Slang for the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

C = The Big Coat Hanger – Slang for the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

D  Dunny – The Australian out-house or toilet is affectionately known by this name. A coach camp dunny Birdsville, Queensland.

D = Dunny – The Australian out-house or toilet is affectionately known by this name.
A coach camp dunny Birdsville, Queensland.

E  Eucalyptus – This is an iconic plant embedded in the Australia psyche; from the arts to the construction of our towns, and the source of therapeutic aromatic oil – a familiar memory in everyday households of Australia. On the Heysen Trail, Mount Lofty Ranges, South Australia.

E = Eucalyptus – This is an iconic plant embedded in the Australia psyche; from the arts to the construction of our towns, and the source of therapeutic aromatic oil – a familiar memory in everyday households of Australia. On the Heysen Trail, Mount Lofty Ranges, S.A.

F  Fosters – An historically famous Australian beer. Barry Caves, The Northern Territory.

F = Fosters – An historically famous Australian beer. Barry Caves, The Northern Territory.

G  Gundagai – Five miles from Gundagai  is the location described in the bush verse about a bullocky’s bad luck. While the popular version of this story makes a hero of the bullocky’s dog who ‘sat on’ his tucker box protecting it from harm. However anyone reading the original poem would come to the conclusion – the ultimate in bad luck was that the dog ‘shat in’ the tucker box. In this image of the tourist memorial near Gundagai a statue of the dog ‘sits’ on the tucker box while kids steal money from the wishing fountain in front. Hume Highway near Gundagai, New South Wales.

G = Gundagai – Five miles from Gundagai is the location described in the bush verse about a bullocky’s bad luck. While the popular version of this story makes a hero of the bullocky’s dog who ‘sat on’ his tucker box protecting it from harm. However anyone reading the original poem would come to the conclusion that the ultimate in bad luck had befallen the bullocky –  that the dog had actually ‘shat in’ the tucker box. In this image of the tourist memorial near Gundagai a statue of the dog ‘sits’ on the tucker box while kids steal money from the wishing fountain in front.

H  Holden – The quintessential Australian motor vehicle. Fish Lane, South Brisbane, Queensland.

H = Holden – The quintessential Australian motor vehicle. Fish Lane, South Brisbane, Queensland.

I  Iron (Corrugated) – The most common and versatile building material for outback structures. Olary, South Australia.

I = Iron (Corrugated) – The most common and versatile building material for outback structures. Olary, S. A.

J  Joe Blake – Equals ‘snake’ in Australian rhyming slang. Mannahill, South Australia.

J = Joe Blake – Equals ‘snake’ in Australian rhyming slang. Mannahill, South Australia.

K Kangaroo – An endemic Australian species often so prolific in number that road signs are erected to warn motorists of their presence. The signs are also useful as a test of shooters skill if a shortage of the real thing exists. Judging by this example the Roos have a fair chance. West of Nyngan, New South Wales.

K = Kangaroo – An endemic Australian species often so prolific in number that road signs are erected to warn motorists of their presence. The signs are also useful as a test of shooters skill if a shortage of the real thing exists. Judging by this example the Roos have a fair chance. West of Nyngan, New South Wales.

L  Luna Park – A Temple of fun, frivolity and scary rides for Sydney-siders and Melbournites. St Kilda, Melbourne, Victoria.

L = Luna Park – A Temple of fun, frivolity and scary rides for Sydney-siders and Melbournites. St Kilda, Melbourne, Victoria.

M  Meat Pie – The eating of a meat pie and tomato sauce is a celebrated Australian rite or sacrament, and if you come from Victoria the Four’n Twenty variety would have once been considered the best! Broadbeach, Queensland.

M = Meat Pie – The eating of a meat pie and tomato sauce is a celebrated Australian rite or sacrament, and if you come from Victoria the Four’n Twenty variety would have once been considered the best! Broadbeach, Queensland.

N  Ned Kelly – Located at Glenrowan this colonial sacred site is the place where the Australian folk hero Ned Kelly made his notorious last stand against the Victorian Police. Erected to enable ‘pilgrims’ to ‘revere’ the place, these modern day structures house a multitude of Ned Kelly tokens and souvenirs.  Rather than recognise this as a solemn and tragic clash between authority and the underclass, these souvenirs often seem to parody the event. Here, the matches are a strange connection to the fact that the Victorian Police set fire to the Kelly gang’s refuge and burned it down to enable his capture. Glenrowan, Victoria.

N = Ned Kelly – Located at Glenrowan this colonial sacred site is the place where the Australian folk hero Ned Kelly made his notorious last stand against the Victorian Police. Erected to enable ‘pilgrims’ to ‘revere’ the place, these modern day structures house a multitude of Ned Kelly tokens and souvenirs. Rather than recognise this as a solemn and tragic clash between authority and the underclass, these souvenirs often seem to parody the event. Here, the matches are a strange connection to the fact that the Victorian Police set fire to the Kelly gang’s refuge and burned it down to enable his capture. Glenrowan, Victoria.

O Outback. An open gate, and two tyre tracks pointing toward infinity best expresses the great expanse of wide-open space that is the outback. Near Scopes Range Bore Western, New South Wales.

O = Outback. An open gate, and two tyre tracks pointing toward infinity best expresses the great expanse of wide-open space that is the outback. Near Scopes Range Bore Western, New South Wales.

P  Pub. Revered as the typical lonely outback pub the Birdsville hotel is so inundated with visitors for the annual races that the traveller's empty beer cans are removed each morning with a front-end loader and a tip truck. Birdsville, Western Queensland.

P = Pub. Revered as the typical lonely outback pub the Birdsville hotel is so inundated with visitors for the annual races that the traveller’s empty beer cans are removed each morning with a front-end loader and a tip truck. Birdsville, Western Queensland.

Q  Quid. The pre-decimalization equivalent of two dollars, often associated with value statements like ‘wouldn't be dead for quids’ and, ‘not the full quid’. Toowong Cemetery, Brisbane, Queensland.

Q = Quid. The pre-decimalization equivalent of two dollars, often associated with value statements like ‘wouldn’t be dead for quids’ and, ‘not the full quid’. Toowong Cemetery, Brisbane, Queensland.

R  Red Heads & Red Backs. Both being red these two Australian items can spell danger. Queensland Museum, Brisbane.

R = Red Heads & Red Backs. Both being red these two Australian items can spell danger. Queensland Museum, Brisbane.

S  Sheep. The Australia economy was once described as living off the sheep’s back. Immortalized here is a giant merino variety attracting pilgrims to its past glory. Goulburn, New South Wales.

S = Sheep. The Australia economy was once described as living off the sheep’s back. Immortalized here is a giant merino variety attracting pilgrims to its past glory. Goulburn, New South Wales.

T  Thong. Casual Australian footwear. Western Pains Zoo, Dubbo, New South Wales.

T = Thong. Casual Australian footwear. Western Pains Zoo, Dubbo, New South Wales.

U  Ute. Invented by Australians both in concept and name. Longreach, Queensland.

U = Ute. Invented by Australians both in concept and name. Longreach, Queensland.

V  Vegemite. A black vegetable extract used as a spread on toast or Salada biscuits.

V = Vegemite. A black vegetable extract used as a spread on toast or Salada biscuits.

W  Waltzing Matilda. Shown here is a shrine erected by the McKinlay Shire Council to mark the location where Banjo Paterson wrote the Australian anthem about a swagman's demise on stuffing a jumbuck (sheep) in his tuckerbag. Combo Waterhole near Kynuna, Queensland.

W = Waltzing Matilda. Shown here is a shrine erected by the McKinlay Shire Council to mark the location where Banjo Paterson wrote the Australian anthem about a swagman’s demise on stuffing a jumbuck (sheep) in his tuckerbag. Combo Waterhole near Kynuna, Queensland.

X  Xanthorrhoea. The botanical name for the Australian native plant commonly referred to as the grass tree. Near Canungra, Queensland.

X = Xanthorrhoea. The botanical name for the Australian native plant commonly referred to as the grass tree. Near Canungra, Queensland.

Y  Yabbie. Any form of the Australian freshwater crayfish of the genus Cherax. Yabbying or catching yabbies is a favourite pastime of Australian kids. Near Nerang, Queensland.

Y =Yabbie. Any form of the Australian freshwater crayfish of the genus Cherax. Yabbying or catching yabbies is a favourite pastime of Australian kids. Near Nerang, Queensland.

Z  Zack. The colloquial term for a pre-decimal coin with a value of 5 cents, usually associated with statements of worthless value, hence ‘not worth a zack’ – pertaining here to barren outback country. Near Yunta, South Australia.

Z = Zack. The colloquial term for a pre-decimal coin with a value of 5 cents, usually associated with statements of worthless value, hence ‘not worth a zack’ – pertaining here to barren outback country. Near Yunta, South Australia.

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This unique state complete exhibition set is available for purchase – Contact me for details

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Cobb+Co Museum - Icons on Icons events

Cobb+Co Museum – Icons on Icons events

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Images and text © Doug Spowart

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Creative Commons-by-nc-nd.eu

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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