Project Three: The digital family album

Exercise 2.3 (Digital Image & Culture, pg. 51)

In your exercise for this section you’ll produce a piece of work that explores the family album and its iconography.

Produce a series of six photographs (these can be photomontage, staged photography, work using found images, work including images from your own family archives, etc.) which reference the family album in some way.


As I recorded in my learning log I have not looked at our family albums for some time. I suspect there are several reasons for this:

  • We don’t have children so their role as a social, historical and communicative tool is perhaps lessened
  • They are now associated with death and loss as much as life and celebration
  • We tend to share through social media and keep our images only in digital format

I decided I would therefore reacquaint myself with some old friends and use our family albums for this exercise. I thought it would also be useful as preparation for assignment two. I didn’t have a predetermined theme or concept and decided I would just start working through the albums and see what they suggested.

I was taken completely by surprise when the first album I opened was full of negatives, some 35mm and a number in a square format, a mix of both colour and black and white. Some of them I thought I recognised but others I wasn’t sure of the content. There are too many to have them developed commercially without knowing what I might be getting so I decided to try and digitise a few myself to see what happened.

At the time I didn’t have a very high quality scanner so did some online research and found a negative scanning hack using silvered card. Using this and Photoshop I was able to process some of the negatives. After inverting the images they all came out with a blue hue that I decided not to adjust, I also didn’t clean up the images in any way. Linked to some of the background reading I have been doing I recognised a quality in these images that spoke to me of memory and personal history, the fact that the images are slightly obscured and faint felt important in conveying their age and possible reliability as documentary recordings.

I don’t remember these particular instances as I was obviously too young but I do recognise my Mum and other relatives, which enables me to locate them within my family’s history. That said their faces are not in sharp focus so interpreting them is still left slightly open, I know it is me because I am told it is me but I do not have personal recollection of the events. I’m sure this opens up some interesting existential questions.

As part of my research for this exercise I looked at a very wide range of other photographers (I imagine there are many others!):

  • Lorraine O’Grady – Miscegenated family album
  • Larry Sultan – Pictures from Home
  • Sally Mann
  • Mitch Epstein – Family Business
  • Tina Barney – Theatre of Manners
  • Elinor Carucci – Mother
  • Doug Dubois – All the Days and Nights
  • Nan Goldin – the Ballad of Sexual Dependency and other works
  • Richard Billingham – Ray’s a Laugh
  • Gillian Laub – Family Matters
  • Alessandra Sanguinetti – The Adventures of Guille and Belinda and the Enigmatic Meaning of their Dreams
  • Angela Strasshelms – Left Behind
  • Tierney Gearon – The Mother Project
  • Chris Verene – Galesberg Series
  • Briony Campbell – The Dad Project
  • Angela Kelly – Sundays at Sea
  • Eugene Richards – Dorchester Days
  • Shizico Yi – Family Album on Loss and Love
  • Jo Spence – Beyond the Family Album
  • Ralph Eugene Meatyard – The Family Album of Lucybelle Crater

It was interesting to see those who used their own family album to explore essentially autobiographical issues and those for whom it represents a site of activism; a space to explore and expose the politics of representation. It is also noteworthy to see those photographers, who have, created family albums as part of their oeuvre rather than using those taken as snapshots by other family members. In researching just a few photographers it is clear that this is an extensive field in its own right and includes approaches from documentary to composite; from constructed to found images.

The artist that particularly caught my attention as I was researching, someone I hadn’t come across before, was Bohumil Stepan and his ‘Family Oddities.’

Their surreal quality and quirky humour really appealed and surfaced something interesting for me in terms of the relationship between the family snaps and the oral history that often accompanies them. I decided I would start with some stories and then use found images to create a series of portraits that linked to my family album. I came up with a number of family traits and myths and created the following characters (scroll over the image for captions).

What started out as something playful has really made me think about the relationship between the visual and oral tradition, and the fact that family albums are partial tellings. For example, the traditional image of the family dog may tell us they were regarded as significant enough to photograph but it says little of their backstory, which is often only known to the immediate family.

Photographer links:

The full document for Bohumil Stepan is out of print but it can be seen here as a PDF (as featured by Design Observer)

Bohumil Stepan’s Family Album of Oddities_ Design Observer

 

 

Ephemeral: Nicola Onion

Project 2: Exercise 2.2 (Digital Image and Culture, pg. 45)

Write 500 words in your learning log on a piece of work by one contemporary artist-photographer who uses the archive as a source material.


Photographs are essential to recording moments in life; they freeze time so you may relive your memories forever. However, you can not actually freeze time or memory. (Onions, 2014)

I had a look at artists involved with GRAIN and was immediately struck by the work of a young photographer, Nicola Onions. Graduating from Birmingham Institute of Art and Design in 2014 with a BA (Hons) in Visual Communication (Photography and Moving Image), she describes herself as having a passion for experimentation and working with different mediums and processes. She has self-published five photobooks, featured in a number of group exhibitions and won the GRAIN photography hub graduate award.

‘Ephemeral’ is a poignant, delicate and personal project. Following the death of her grandmother, who suffered from Alzheimer’s, Onions started a project based on memory. It is focused on her grandfather and his life following the loss of his wife and his own Alzheimer’s. The aptly titled ‘Ephemeral’ is an ‘extension of my focus on memory. I use ice in a conceptual way to visualise just how temporary memories are.’ (Onions, 2014)

I leafed through family albums, and discovered our family archive, using this to visualise memory loss, by changing the image, making them unrecognisable. I showed my Grandfather’s worsening condition through his eyes, so everyone could understand the horror that is dementia, and memory loss.

Many if not most of us will have some experience of dementia through our families and friends. The statistics from the Alzheimer’s’ Society are revealing:

  • There are 850,000 people with dementia in the UK, with numbers set to rise to over 1 million by 2025. This will soar to 2 million by 2051.
  • 225,000 will develop dementia this year, that’s one every three minutes.
  • 1 in 6 people over the age of 80 have dementia.
  • 70 per cent of people in care homes have dementia or severe memory problems.

I recognise what Onion refers to as the ‘horror of Alzheimer’s’ and it seems to have become a topic increasingly tackled by photographers (Jean Jameson, Maya Daniels, Christopher Nunn, and the exhibition The Other Place http://torch.ox.ac.uk/other-place-art-and-alzheimers, to name a few). Many have used a documentary style but I was struck by the impact of Onion’s more conceptual approach.

I use ice in a conceptual way, to visualise just how temporary his memories are. By creating a unique piece of art, that only remains for minutes, and can only be frozen by the use of a camera, I communicate the idea that not only is life transient, but so are the memories of my Grandfather. The ice obstructs the image encased, manipulating the memory, and as it melts, it shows the memory fading away. I also used this process to convey my feelings about the disease, and my own existence. (Onions, 2014)

The ice is obscuring each small photograph and as it transforms to a liquid state it interacts with the enclosed image. Warping, fading, distressing what is found inside. Something that particularly appealed following my recent experiments with water. All that remains of the original artwork is the photographic record; it almost represents an archive of an archive. It also raises interesting questions about photography’s relationship to memory as well as the fears that the thought of a fading memory can provoke.

Selfhood hinges on our ability to order memory, and connect a set of experiences to form a coherent autobiography of who we were and how we became the person we are now.(Leadbeater, 2014)

References and citations:

Leadbeater, C. (2014). The Disremembered.   Retrieved 30th November 2017, Aeon, from https://aeon.co/essays/if-your-memory-fails-are-you-still-the-same-person

Onions, N. (2014). Ephemeral.   Retrieved 29th November 2017, from https://the-dots.com/projects/ephemeral-123865

 

Project One: The Artist as Curator

Exercise 2.1 (Digital Image and Culture pg: 41)

Bring together a series of 12 images (a typology) in which a particular motif appears again and again. You may use physical found images or images found online. Select an appropriate format to display the images.

Look at the work of Corinne Vionnet and her series ‘Photo Opportunities.’


Part One

Something had obviously been nestling in the back of my mind; I’m sure to do with the current political context and the recent issues of the harassment of women in the workplace. Somehow this manifested itself as looking back to the votes for women campaigns.

I think I’d assumed that there was probably an archive somewhere with lots of images of suffragettes and the suffrage movement. Having looked through a number it seemed it wasn’t that straightforward and while several images kept reappearing like the woman with her two children; getting to twelve was more difficult than I thought it would be. In the end it was through Pinterest I was able to find the most images through a single source.

Twelve images of suffragette votes for women placards

Votes for women

I was particularly interested in the ‘Votes for Women’ placards and sashes as the common motif rather than necessarily the women themselves. In all the images they are prominent and being clearly brandished by the women. I had looked at protest banners in a previous course and found that there is a tendency to use all upper case typography and was surprised to find that although these images are much older the same tradition applies. Just by way of experimentation and because I had already looked at Corinne Vionnet’s work in the last section I decided to create a single layered version. I think there is something quite melancholic about it.

Different images of votes for women placards overlaid

Votes for Women – layered

Having collected those images I was curious about where the campaigns led, not so much from the perspective of women voting but of women then moving into the political domain and taking up roles as MPs.  So I searched for the first women MPs and again found a fairly disparate result using Google images. It was interesting to note how many of those that came up are held behind a paywall with the likes of Getty Images, Alamy or other picture agencies. I found this quite a challenge as these women are part of our shared history and while I respect the rights of the photographers it really posed an interesting question for me about who has access to what kinds of archives.

Portaits of the first 12 English Women MPs

The first twelve women Members of Parliament

The motif of being a female MP might not be immediately evident; I suspect on looking at them they might appear more as society women or possibly writers/actors. They are all single headshots, some looking to camera and some not but I find there is a sense of consistency between them. It may just be that they seem to have an era in common.

These must have been quite extraordinary women for their time and I was a bit saddened to find there doesn’t seem to be a single repository that has their images together. I was eventually able to find all twelve by searching for the women individually, having found their names through the House of Commons Library ‘Women Members of Parliament’ list.

Small portraits of women standing for the 1932 General Election

Women standing for the 1923 General Election

At the same time I was researching the women MPs I found a ready-made typology from the 1923 general election. It was interesting to note the similarities between this and the images I had collected. Most are head and shoulder portraits with the exception of the two full length shots. I’m sure they say a lot about the nature of portraiture at the time.

Part Two

Having been surprised at how much research I had to do find the images in part one I thought I would repeat the exercise with something more mundane. I was also reflecting on some of my reading around Joachim Schmid and the nature of the post photographic era. Looking back to one of my earlier exercises I decided to search for Spaghetti in the open access archive Pixabay. This immediately generated 375 images. A similar search in Adobe Stock showed 172,944 results, Alamy showed 83,735 and Google Images also found thousands. Even restricting my search to ‘Spaghetti AND fork’ it was easy to find a set of 12 images on Pixabay alone.

12 photos of spaghetti dishes in a grid

Spaghetti with fork

I’m not too sure what this comparison tells me at this point but it was fascinating to see the contrast between searching for popular and historic images.

 

 

 

The found image in photomontage

Exercise 1.3 (Digital Image and Culture) pg.29

Use readily available images to make a short narrative series of four to six collages based on a recent or contemporary news event.


The challenge of this exercise was the vast array of contemporary news stories to choose from – everything from sexual harassment in the workplace to Brexit, and from abuse of power to fake news. In some ways the most recent news felt too close and overwhelming. Trying to make sense of an increasingly complex and apparently senseless world is challenging.

I keep a folder of potential blog posts and started to look through that for inspiration. That’s when I came across the research from the British Nutrition Foundation (June 2017) that was widely reported in most mainstream press at the time. It contained fascinating findings on how little UK children know about how food is made and where it comes from:

  • 25% of respondents thought that cheese was made from plants
  • Nearly one in ten secondary schools pupils thought that tomatoes grew underground
  • 30% of 5-8yr olds thought pasta was made of meat
  • 22% of respondents thought that fish fingers were made from chicken
  • 28% didn’t know carrots grew underground
  • 11% thought that fruit pastilles counted towards their five a day!

I thought I would work with this because I have a strong interest in what has been happening to our food production and how distanced from it many of us have become. On the one hand it is amusing and I thought provided a playful topic, on the other hand it is serious issue that our future generations are growing up with so little understanding of their food. I thought I could create something childlike but with an underlying message.

I started collecting images that might relate to the various statistics and then worked on cutting, assembling and sticking. I wasn’t too happy with the original versions of tomatoes and cows.

I reworked these two for the final set.

I think the chicken and the reworked pasta cow are probably the most successful. The chicken was the one I had the clearest sense of in my mind’s eye before I started.

 

Re-make an existing work of art: Orange Field

Part One: Project two. Exercise 1.2 part b (page. 25)

Re-make an existing work of at using photography. This can be a simple re-staging or a more elaborate tableau.


Initially, my approach was going to be still life influenced by one of the early female still life painters such as Maria van Oosterwijck (17th century) or Rachel Ruysch (18th century). Their work has been a source of inspiration for some time partly because of their quality but also because of their place as women painters and the fact that it was the only genre they were ‘allowed’ to work in by the academy of the time. For me still life is in part a political act.

In the end I decided to take a different approach and try out something new but that still had a depth of meaning. Stimulated by some of my research for Graphic Design One I decided to look at still life in pop art and came across ‘Orange Field’ by James Rosenquist (1964). I really liked its sense of ordinariness and mundanity, a simple bowl of spaghetti with a single fork; nothing fancy, no food styling or complex staging, just spaghetti.  Orange Field sits within the Pop Art commentary on consumerism and capitalism, it speaks to me of my concerns around what has become of food production in the West and how distanced many of us are from where our food originates.

Initially I set it up as a food shoot, imagining I was going to get something close to the original. Unsurprisingly, even though I got the light in about the right place, it was clear very quickly that this was not going to be a copy. Echoing Zahalka’s series it was going to be more of a resemblance, drawing on, rather than recreating the piece. Having taken the shots I made some changes in Photoshop, mainly adding a white mask and tidying up some of the spaghetti.

It was fascinating to do this exercise, and even though it could be said I chose something very simple it became increasingly multi-layered for me as I worked on it. I found myself thinking about Rosenquist’s motivation, about our relationship to food, the fact that while he painted it in 1964 Heinz spaghetti had been on the market since 1926, the implications of this for wheat production and a drive to increasing yields and monocultures that have been so environmentally devastating, and so on. I am also very aware that others looking at the image may see little more than a bowl of spaghetti.

 

Anne Zahalka, Marriage of Convenience (1987)

 

…the idea that appearances can be deceptive has been central to Zahalka’s practice. Often conflating reality with fiction, she has appropriated or re-staged iconic images and simulated period styles as part of an ongoing enquiry into the nature of image making, and the representation of the world in which we live.” (Rees, 2007: 41)

Marriage of Convenience is part of the wider ‘Resemblance’ series produced by Australian photo-artist Anne Zahalka during a residency in Berlin. This photograph is immediately recognisable as drawing on and referencing a European painting tradition. It is a ‘resemblance’ of Jan Van Eyck’s Marriage of Arnolfini (1434); the original painting depicting Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini and his wife.

Zahalka’s version features artists Graham Budgett and Jane Mulfinger, both friends of Anne Zahalka at the time. The original version is steeped with symbolism; the oranges, fur lined robes, glass windows, the large red bed, and ornate candelabra are all evidence of wealth and opulence. It also raises questions; who are the people reflected in the prominent mirror, is she or isn’t she pregnant, and is Arnolfini greeting the viewer? The image is richly textured and nuanced.

Similarly, Zahalka’s version raises questions. Whose keys are on the table, why do they sit beside what look likes two passports; what is the relationship between the two people represented, and what clues do we see to their identities as artists? These clues are, from my perspective, pointing to issues of identity and how it is defined and represented. How our interactions with ‘things’ can be used to define us, in seeing Jane and Graham in this setting we associate them with the setting in which they are placed, it is hard not to assume a relationship.

The presence of the passport seems particularly important as documents very much associated with identity, embodiment and photography. In Foucauldian terms passports are regarded as new ‘technologies of power’, socio-technical artefacts that ‘regulate bodies over their movement.’  (Keshavarz, 2015 :13)

It is through passports that individuals come to know themselves as international mobile – immobile or partially (im)mobile subjects and bodies. (Salter, 2006)

In referencing the tradition of European portraiture, particularly the Dutch tradition, I think Zahalka was also drawing attention to her own identity as an Australian artist at a time when there was much debate about Australian culture and a desire to move away from historical links to Europe. Rather than Van Eyck’s statement of his presence on the wall Zahalka includes her own portrait.

The image also pokes fun at the tradition and includes references that locate it in its own time – the radio in the foreground and Budgett’s ‘Zoological Park’ is on the wall behind him.

Zahalka has mentioned that she sees the subject as just another object in the room, being equally interested in what surrounds them. When we look into these surroundings, however, we know they are not merely décor. They are the staging, and the ceremony, of the world.   (Woodard, 2009)

I was fortunate to see Resemblance in Australia, and was immediately struck by the scale and beauty of the images, at nearly a metre square their presence was arresting. The rich surface quality enhancing the detail of the image.

But a photographic portrait is also only one moment in the course of a sitting and many expressions pass across the face during this time. So while we might want to read into the person presented before us in the photograph, through their face and eyes – the so-called ‘window to the soul’ – there is no real way of knowing. Everything else in the picture however is a clue. (Rees, 2009)

References and citations:

Keshavarz, M. (2015). Material practices of power–part I: passports and passporting. Design Philosophy Papers, 13(2), 97-113.

Rees, K. (2007). Objects in mirror may be closer than they appear. In Centre for Contemporary Photography (Ed.). Victoria, Australia: CCP.

Rees, K. (2009). Hall of Mirrors: Anne Zahalka portraits 1987 – 2007.   Retrieved 11th October 2017, 2017, from http://netsvictoria.org.au/exhibition/hall-of-mirrors-anne-zahalka-portraits/

Salter, M. B. (2006). The global visa regime and the political technologies of the international self: Borders, bodies, biopolitics. Alternatives, 31(2), 167-189.

Woodard, A. (2009). The Ceremonial Subject. Australian Art Collector(49), 152 -157.

 

 

The layered image

Exercise 1.1 Digital Image and Culture pg.21

Create a series of six to eight images using layering techniques


I started this exercise by looking at the recommended photographers and doing a mind map of some of the topics I might work with. The list was pretty extensive so I was reasonably comfortable I would find something interesting to develop. Through Graphic Design 1 I found my best way of working is to have at least two concepts on the go at once so that if one doesn’t work out as anticipated I have something else to develop.

I started with the 8 million series as this is an area I have done some work in before. It is based on the issue of at least 8 million tons of plastic entering the oceans from the land every year (National Geographic). I wanted to use the layering to show the different elements of marine life, water and plastics. As I developed the work the series became more simplified, finishing with just the image of the plastic bottle beneath the water.

I was not sure they had become a coherent series or if this was what was meant by the use of layering. In some ways I found it a confusing concept as layering is an inherent part of the way I work in Photoshop anyway, that does not necessarily mean the layers are as overt as in the recommended photographers.

I decided to carry on and work with another theme. This seemed necessary as I thought further about layers, their possible purpose and intention as part of an image’s system of meaning. I considered the kind of messages the layers might convey – different emotions, different actions, comparisons between themes or issues, layers of identity and so on. I had been thinking about doing some work with fairytales or myths and this reminded me of Pandora’s Box. So the myth goes, on opening the box Pandora unleashes evils on the world, leaving one thing ‘hope’ in the box. One version talks about biting moths that attack Pandora and that Hope is seen in the form of a dragonfly. I thought I would play with these motifs and ideas of darkness and light, hope and despair and so on.

I think the five landscape versions are experiments on the way to version six of Pandora, by this version I was starting to think more about the layers. The three flies are significant in that the atomic weight of Lithium is three and Lithium is regarded as an element that could help resolve our issues of energy sustainability. However, Lithium also has a shadow side in the environmental impacts associated with its mining. Like Pandora’s Box it is an image of light and shade, hope and despair.  While I was happy with the final image I was not sure it could be developed further into a series, other than by altering the number of flies and relating them to different elements. Once more I moved on.

I took the Pandora series to one of our regular Thames Valley Photography Group meetings and got some very useful responses in terms of reactions to the images. I described my bemusement about the value and purpose of working with overt layers. This prompted a helpful conversation about what the layers might add and that unlike a composite (covert layers), making the layers visible served a particular purpose in terms of being able to see through them to what lies beneath. This led me to reflect on what meaning this could create, I thought about the layers referring to passing time and created the following autobiographical series. Each has a base layer of 1960s wallpaper on top of which I have added other images that have personal meaning from that period and later. In every image there is also a small reference to the present.

As someone used to working with composites this exercise turned out to be more troublesome than I had imagined. Having experimented with different concepts I felt I did eventually find an approach that worked in relation to the layers creating meaning in their own right.

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The layered image: Corinne Vionnet – Photo Opportunities

Kodak advert

A vacation without a Kodak is a vacation wasted.

We travel, we see a monument, we take a picture. Framing sites of mass tourism in our viewfinders, we create photographic souvenirs that are integral to the touristic experience. (Vionnet, 2014)

I bounced around for a while between the possible photographers to explore for this exercise. In the end I decided to look further at the work of Corinne Vionnet, partly because it was least familiar to me and partly because it was unlike any work I have attempted to date.

Vionnet, a French/Swiss photographer, based in Vevey Switzerland, in some ways happened upon the work that later formed ‘Photo Opportunities.’ In 2005 on a trip to Pisa she noticed that she and her boyfriend were taking pictures of the famous tower from similar viewpoints. Looking around her she noticed the activity of other tourists wondered how many of their photographs would also resemble each other.

She initially collected online images of the tower, and then expanded her search to other well-known sites of tourism. The body of work now comprises 50 of the most iconic landmarks.

I looked at all these images and wondered if we were all trying to reproduce an image we already knew. I thought, how much does a certain image – through films, advertisements, postcards and the Internet – influence our gaze? Are we trying to produce an image of an image? (Newman, 2011)

To this list of influences I would also add painting, and reviews certainly refer to her work as Impressionistic. The multiple overlays (in some cases over 100 images of a particular site) reminded me of the works of Monet and Pissarro in London. Their ethereal quality giving them a softness that seems to share more in common with painting than what might be expected of a tourist photograph.

The role of photography in tourism is well researched and documented from Sontag’s notion of the ‘trophy’ photograph (Sontag, 1979: 177) to Said’s ‘imaginative geographies.’ (Said, 1979: 49) The Kodak advert shows how as a corporation it was part of constructing a culture in the west that made the photograph synonymous with a vacation. Vionnet has clearly picked up on the inherent desire to capture our visits, and now in the age of social media to share them widely.

What is remarkable about Vionnet’s findings is the consistency in online iterations of the travellers’ gaze. It makes one wonder, how do we determine the optimum spot to photograph landmarks? Maybe we stand at the gateway to the Taj Mahal to render its architectural façade in perfect symmetry…

Perhaps we instinctively choose how to photograph known monuments as we are socially conditioned to take pictures we have seen before. (Vionnet, 2016)

I am particularly struck by Vionnet talking of the series as being a collaborative creation, the combination of multiple, yet similar perspectives. I am also reminded of Edensor’s ethnographic research at the Taj Mahal in which he proposes ‘tourism involves both the collection of archetypal quotidian cultural signs of otherness (Culler, 1981), and the journey to gaze upon extraordinary places.’ As well as capturing the archetypal image it would also appear that tourists also have a desire to do so in contemplative solitude and that the presence of other tourists doing likewise is a source of irritation.

Echoing the colonial convention that scenes were best depicted without ‘natives’ cluttering up the picture, many package tourists expressed surprise and disappointment, bemoaning the hordes that spoil the serenity of scene and clutter the romantic vista. (Edensor, 2008: 179)

What is interesting about Vionnet’s images is that much of the extraneous noise of other tourists is blended away to ghostly remnants, leaving the site itself to remain prominent and recognisable.

References and citations:

Edensor, T. (2008). Tourists at the Taj: Performance and meaning at a symbolic site: Routledge.

Newman, C. (2011). Looks familiar: Corinne Vionnet at Arles photography festival Retrieved 2nd October 2017, from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/photography/8607995/Looks-familiar-Corinne-Vionnet-at-Arles-photography-festival.html

Said, E. (1979). Orientalism. 1978. New York: Vintage, 199.

Sontag, S. (1979). On Photography. London: Penguin.

Vionnet, C. (2014). Photo Opportunities Statement.   Retrieved 2nd October 2017, from http://www.corinnevionnet.com/-photo-opportunities-text.html

Vionnet, C. (2016). Photo Opportunities.   Retrieved 2nd October 2017, from https://www.lensculture.com/articles/corinne-vionnet-photo-opportunities

 

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