Category Archives: documentary

Black Panther Minister of Culture and Prime Designer of their Graphics Comes to SFPL

In commemoration of a half century after the rise of the Black Panthers (and the selection of Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party for One City/One Book), the San Francisco Public Library  hosted what was supposed to be a panel discussion on the art and activism of Emory Douglas (born in Grand Rapids, Michigan in 1943), the Panther Minister of Culture, who illustrated the Black Panther paper and was one of the panthers who traveled to Algiers, He didn’t talk about that summit or about working with Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, starting with the third issue of The Black Panther Community News Serice in 1967. Confident that he understood their anti-imperialist politics, they did not supervise his work, but left him to do whatever graphics he wanted.

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(2014 Creative Commons photo by Amber Gregory)

Asked about influences on his art, he denied there were any, citing only the craft of two-color commercial illustration he learned at San Francisco City College. He went on for more than two hours reading any text in the illustrations, talking about the political background of some. He has not forgiven Barack Obama for running for Congress (unsuccessfully) against ex-Panther leader Bobby Rush and is appalled that someone going through a weekly kill list won the Nobel Peace Prize (as did one of his targets, Henry Kissinger). There were few weapons, few guns in his powerpoint presentation (lots of pigs, lots of children), but there are many in his book. Next week, political scientists Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin Jr. will talk about the San Francisco Reads current choice, Black Against Empire. I was given a copy and will at least dip into it It has a thorough index. There are images I like, even some with guns, though not the grotesque pigs.


Douglas reported that the icon came out of SNCC work in Lowndes County, Alabama (the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, led by Stokely Carmichael had been using a black panther logo, Carmichael keynoted a Black Power conference in Berkeley 29 October 1966). He worked at the San Francisco Sun Reporter for 30+ years after publication of The Black Panther ceased, and has collaborated with Sandinistas, UFW, Australian aborigine, and Maori activists. He showed some of this later work.

In “The Revolution Will Be Visualized,” Colette Gaiter wrote: “Douglas was the Norman Rockwell of the ghetto, concentrating on the poor and oppressed. Departing from the WPA/social realist style of portraying poor people, which can be perceived as voyeuristic and patronizing, Douglas’s energetic drawings showed respect and affection. He maintained poor people’s dignity while graphically illustrating harsh situations.”

Douglas said that the paper stopped using profanity after Newton communicated from prison that Malcolm X got his message across without it. He denied any influence from Mao, though they sold copies of the little red book to finance their programs.


I doubt that I was the only audience member who would have preferred some reminisces of working with Huey Newton, Bobby Seale, and Eldridge Cleaver to reading what was on his graphics. I’d have liked to ask him if he thinks Cleaver was always a con-man from Soul on Ice to his Moonie and Mormon conversions. I’m sure there was at least one person who’d have liked to ask his opinion (or knowledge!) of whether Newton became a drug dealer in later years. In contrast with them, Douglas is “keeping the [anti-imperialist, police-monitoring faith of the original Panthers.


©2017, Stephen O. Murray


“An American Journey: In Robert Frank’s Footsteps”


To make “An American Journey: In Robert Frank’s Footsteps” (2009), a half century after Swiss-German-Jewish immigrant photographer Robert Frank (born in Zurich in 1924) took to the road for two years on a Guggenheim fellowship, Philippe Seclier set out to follow Frank’s itinerary and try to find people and places that had made it into Frank’s (1958 in French, 1959 in English) book The Americans. Frank took 28,000 photographs, of which the book reproduced only 83.

In the documentary some people page through the book, but Seclier only shows trying to find the subjects of a handful of the photos. He finds New Orleans trolleys the window in Butte, Montana from which Frank shot the streets and rooftops of a more prosperous mining town), and the location of a shot on Belle Island in the Detroit River without the black and white people who were the point of Frank’s shot. He also finds a black Alabama woman whom Frank shot on the back of a motorcycle and a boy who was in the foreground of a 4th of July celebration in upstate New York (with a very large flag taking up most of the visual field). Both identify themselves in the photos, but neither remembers the photographer or being photographed.

Somewhat more interesting than the failures to connect with the objects of the 1950s photos are some reminiscences of the French and the American publishers (Barney Rossiter of the Evergreen Review and Grove Press was the American one, Robert Delpire the French one), Frank’s New York printer, and a friend in whose darkroom in Orinda (a suburb of San Francisco just east of the coastal mountains) Frank made the first prints of the film he had shot crossing the country. These interview segments are OK. More interesting it the tale of Frank’s youth in Switzerland surrounded by the Third Reich and coming to the US in 1947, where he worked for Harper’s Bazaar as a fashion photographer for a time. After some time in Paris, he returned and did freelance photography published in glossy magazines of the early 1950s.

Edward Streichen and Walker Evans supported his Guggenheim application. The latter wrote a preface for the first (French) edition. The newly famous Jack Kerouac wrote one for the Grove Press American edition. Allen Ginsberg had also befriended Frank, and Frank was best known to me for filming the Beat writers in “Pull My Daisy” and the Rolling Stones in “Cocksucker Blues.” (Frank’s film-making career, and indeed anything beyond the publication of The Americans is unmentioned in the documentary and there is no mention of any attempt to hear from Frank himself.

I know that some criticized blurriness in some of the images in the book, so am somewhat hesitant to criticize the blurriness of many “on the road” shots in the movie. I imagine that Seclier, who credits himself with photographing and driving, had some arty intent, though the blurriness may derive from filming and driving at the same time.

I am not convinced that the book is as important or as seminal as Seclier believes. For the seminal, remember that Frank was supported by Walker Evans, whose photographs in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men documented poverty and racism in the American South. Also dating back to the 1930s, were the powerful images shot by Dorothea Lange (and even Ansel Adams’s documentary photographs of the Manzanar concentration camp for West Coast Japanese Americans during World War II). And Frank’s photographs are not as well known as those of Diane Arbus (with Frank and Saul Leiter, Frank is sometimes identified as a photographic “New York School” paralleling the “New York School” of poets—with whom Frank was not associated).

Mention is made at the attacks on the book for the definite article (the) in the title, a claim for universality or representativeness that was not made in the first two publications of Frank’s photos from on the road.

For the half-century anniversary of the publication of the book, an exhibition was mounted by the National Gallery in DC, and traveled here (the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) and onto China. The documentary ends with a woman walking through the exhibit in Northern China (with a glimpse at the map indicating places where photos in the show and book were shot). She does not say anything about her impressions of the photos.

The documentary might stimulate some viewers (even those who shut off the DVD long before its end, though that is never more than an hour away) to look at Frank’s book, but it is a remarkably dull movie. Painter Ed Ruscha makes some apposite remarks, but Seclier’s meditations are exceptionally banal. For sue, Seclier is not a new Tocqueville!


©2013, 2017, Stephen O. Murray


Ric Burns’s Ansel Adams documentary


I’ve seen film documentaries of a number of photographers from the heroic age (between the world wars), including Paul Strand, Henri Cartier-BressonDorothea Lange, and Rondal Partridge. The 2002 “American Masters” one about Ansel Adams (1902-84), directed by Ric Burns, is the most revealing one, detailing an unusual childhood on the northwestern edge of the San Francisco peninsula, being injured in the 1906 earthquake, being what was not yet labeled “hyperactive,” spending a year at the Panama-Pacific Exhibition, and throwing himself into playing the piano before taking up photography. His courtship was prolonged and the documentary delves into a major marital crisis involving a darkroom assistant. And lots of self-doubts, ending in years in which he stopped taking photographs, but was a Sierra Club activist, especially involved in getting King’s Canyon set aside as a National Park.

There is footage of him playing the piano. I recall only one video interview of him, though there are ones of his son and daughter (and Carl Pope, longtime head of the Sierra Club).

There are also a lot of striking Adams photographs. My unease is that a whole photograph is rarely on display. The Burns brothers (Ken and Ric) style of panning in and out and back and forth means that the composition Adams made (often as much in the darkroom as choosing a shot) are pretty much not available in the documentary. (I have seen prints on museum and other walls, and reproductions in books, but…).

The narration is pessimistic about the preservation of wilderness. Some of the access to the Yosemite Valley has been rolled back and I think there are still remote, quite wild areas in Yosemite and Kings Canyon National Parks (if not in Sequoia).


The standard Burns mix of interviews and actors reading letters (plus some home movies) also typifies this documentary. With even less criticism by anyone of the person considered (there is mention of criticisms of Adams and Weston during the Depression for not making socially “relevant” photos, and, oddly, no mention of the photographs Adams took of the Japanese-American concentration camp a Manzanar, east of Mount Whitney, that Adams took).


(1947 photograph of Adams, probably taken by J. Malcolm Greany that first appeared in the 1950 Yosemite Field School yearbook and is in the public domain)

Also, other than chronicling encouragement from Alfred Stieglitz, there is little about other photographers (mention of advice from Strand and the apolitical rap made of Weston and Adams), though Adams was involved (founded) a group, f64 (named for sharp focus).

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Northern California photographer Rondal Partridge

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Onstage (at a 2008 showing of his daughter’s documentary about Dorothea Lange), Rondal Partridge [1917-2015] showed an impatience with cant and showed no inhibitions about saying what he thought, even if it undercut what his daughters had said. He firmly maintained that photography is documentation, not art, though explaining that this certainly did not mean photographs could not be beautiful.

At the time, I thought he was presenting his own view. Having looked through his daughter Elizabeth’s selection of more than a hundred of his photographs taken across the span of about seventy years (Quizzical Eye, 2003), I’ve decided that he must have been presenting Lange’s position.


He accompanied Lange on expeditions photographing migrant workers during the Great Depression and photographed her and Ansel Adams (with whom he was apprenticed before Lange; both were friends of his parents Mills College art professor Roi Partridge and photographer Imogen Cunningham). In the Q&A Rondal said that he was gravitating to the view that Adams was a “pictorialist with sharp edges” (the sharpness of images was central to the f.64 group centered on Adams).

Be that as it may, many of the landscapes included in the book look like Adams’s photograph, with the very notable exception of one of Half Dome in Yosemite (the prototypical subject of Adams photographs) shot across an overflowing parking lot on the Yosemite Valley floor.

One Rondal Partridge leitmotif is automobiles blighting California, and he has very deliberately documented pollution as well as documenting the migrants of the Depression and spending the World War II years as a Navy documentary photographer.

I like his pictures of artists, both candid ones and posed ones. — and plate 57 which was a “hold that position” one of Lange. My favorite is a mid-1950s portrait of Odetta with her head rested on her guitar and looking dreamily off (plate 36).

Partridge’s work also includes some self-portraits that I would call “surrealistic” and some as far from “documentation” as the experiments of, say, Man Ray. The photos of flea market displays with the photographer’s shadow and the dead birds on a plat with onions or in a cordial glass (plates 92-93) are somewhere between surrealism and abstraction, Partridge’s still-lives strike me as being as composed as those of Edward Weston (whom Partridge also knew from childhood on). And the strikingly composed shots of buildings (especially plates 52-55) are surely works of art (even if also of “documentation”). The buildings are in sharp focus (though the distant hills, etc. are not).

In addition to the splendid printing of Partridge photographs, there are essays by his daughter Elizabeth and by Dorothea Lange’s son Daniel Dixon that bear on living with/around Partridge’s passion for photography, and a fine overview of Rondal Partridge’s anti-careerist trajectory as a photographer by photography historian Sally Stein.


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(Partridge’s most famous image, Yosemite’s Half Dome across a parking lot in 2965)

Both pictures and text are engaging and unpretentious. Now I want to see Meg Partridge’s documentary films about her father and her paternal grandmother!


©2008, 2016, Stephen O. Murray

Dorothea Lange, photographer and photographs, on the page


Dorothea Lange: A Visual Life, edited by Elizabeth Partridge, has a substantial amount of text, but before seeing the documentary film (of the same title) directed by Meg Partridge (and a lively Q&A session with the two of them and their father Rondal Partridge, who had been Lange’s assistant during the Great Depression expeditions that produced her most famous image(s), I settled down to read the essays in the book.

The ones I found most engaging were those by persons who knew Lange personally —the editor who was a quasi-member of the family, Lange’s son David Dixon, former University of California president Clark Kerr, and photographer Anselm Adams who worked with or in parallel with Lange on several projects, including photographing the Manzanar, California concentration camp for Japanese Americans removed to the east side of the Sierra Nevadas by an order from Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

That Lange drove herself hard is reported both by those who knew her well and by the women’s studies scholars (Linda Morris, Sally Stein) who wrote from a greater analytic distance from Lange (though, IMO, less critically). She was also a very demanding mother and contract employee. Even more than Dixon, Partridge reports pained incomprehension by the boys, who were sent off to boarding school so that their father, painter Maynard Dixon, and mother (Lange) could focus on their work (/career/art). Morris particularly focuses on Lange’s ambivalence about the role of mother: photographing women who existed entirely in the domestic sphere in which she refused to be encased, but also could not (she felt) altogether abandon. Morris quotes Christina Gardner, another former Lange assistant, saying that “she knew the importance of maternity was not a very maternal person.” Moreover, she pressed her work ethic on her sons (more than on her quasi-granddaughters, Meg and Elizabeth Partridge).

Lange was, Morris writes, “opinionated, impatient, and willful,” but I am somewhat surprised that Morris does not put “difficult woman” in scare quotes, since “difficult woman” seems to me a highly suspect label, one with a much lower threshhold than “difficult man,” and one invoked disproportionately to justify not supporting women working in predominantly male professions. Lange’s first husband, the father of her sons, for instance, sounds to me as not just “difficult” but outright “ornery” as well as being more egocentric.

I don’t at all mean to suggest that Morris is lacking in sympathy for the difficulties Lange had trying to make it in very male worlds during very hard times (the Great Depression). Her essay is an excellent introduction to Lange’s work and sense of vocation, and I especially appreciated the technical explanation of why most of Lange’s photos of people in the field (AKA “real world”) look up (literally) rather than down (though her second most famous photo, of a San Francisco breadline in 1932 DOES look down). The Rolleiflex camera she preferred was at waist level rather than eye level (as 35mm cameras were).

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(I think Lange’s secon most-famous image (after “Oakie Madonna” reproduced in my previous review): 1 933 breadline in San Francisco)

The longest essay in the book is Sally Stein’s “Peculiar Grace” on “the testimony of the body” in Lange’s photographs. Stein seems to me to go out farther on limbs of speculation about motivation than any of the other authors of essays in the book. Her theses about how the effects of childhood polio (contracted when Lange was seven) and adult illness (of the digestive system, culminating in the fatal cancer of the esophagus) affected what she photographed (notably, a lot of shots of feet and legs) are provocative. (This argument is undermined, perhaps unconsciously, by Elizabeth Partridge’s selection of Lange photographs, in which hands are very, very prominent, much more than feet are.)

Stein suggests that other photographers on the payroll of New Deal organizations (including, the War Relocation Authority, which staffed concentration camps with New Deal officials) censored themselves, while Lange resisted and insisted on documenting unpleasant realities (barbed wire and guards, for instance, in the Manzanar photos). This seems almost certainly to be true.

I can imagine arguments being made against Stein’s interpretation that Lange’s photographs “de-emphasized the social and environmental context in order to focus on the body alone as a site of social formation and deformation,” though I think there is something valid in it. He suggestion (which she hedges as “arguable”) that Lange’s modus operandi “appeared to universalize, perhaps inadvertently, the nature of alienation by embodying it in rather general terms” surely would be rejected by Lange’s many admirers — especially that “general terms.” It seems to me that a more plausible argument could be made that Lange’s close-up photographs were so specific as to open reading (of the images) as psychological maladies rather than sociopolitically produced dilemmas (the process of mechanizing and increasing the scale of American agriculture was one that Paul Taylor was particularly interested in and that Dorothea Lange extensively documented).

Stein sometimes writes jargonistically (as no one else in the volume does) and along with providing arguments that I find stimulating even if unpersuasive, there is one outright anachronism in Stein’s chapter. Stein interprets Lange’s use of the male pronoun for the photographer as evidence of a failure to be able to conceive females in the profession. If someone now wrote that way, I would accept the interpretation, but that “he” was general/generic was the grammar of the English language during the 1930s, not a conscious pragmatic choice. “He or she,” “s/he,” etc. were not in use. The most that can be said is that Lange did not invent them then. Articulate a speaker/writer as she was, would anyone expect her to have made that linguistic innovation?

There are Lange photographs (including a few of her by Rondal Partridge) throughout the book and a chronological set of 56 Lange photographs with quotations from the 1960-61 interviews (also used extensively in the documentary film “A Visual Life”) of Lange (in the Regional Oral History Archive of the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley).


(1936 photo of Lange at work shot by her husband, Paul Taylor)

I find Lange’s photographs from Egypt particularly striking. Although she was accompanying Paul Taylor, these do not seem to be part of the kind of documentation project she had done in Mississippi, Utah, the California forced resettlement of Japanese Americans, an Alameda County Public Defender, and the famous Dust Bowl migrants’ work. I don’t think that art(istry) and documentation are incompatible and I think that all of Lange’s photographs are both, but these seem to me to be particularly striking pieces of photographic art.

I think that many will find Stein’s chapter heavy going. I found much of interest in it, but even skipping it, there is a wealth of verbal insight about Lange and Lange’s photography in the book, which I highly recommend to those interested in the history of photography, New Deal (self-representations), the shameful wartime treatment of Japanese Americans, and/or the extra hurdles female artists — and other professionals — had to overcome to do “men’s work”/create art/document history as it unfolded (and, of course, those interested in Lange and/or her two husbands, Maynard Dixon and Paul Taylor).

— — —

Elizabeth Partridge is also the author/compiler of Restless Spirit: The Life and Work of Dorothea Lange (2001), This Land Was Made for You and Me: The Life and Songs of Woody Guthrie (2002) and of Quizzical Eye: The Photography of Rondal Partridge (2002), along with much historical fiction and many children’s books,

Photographing people not posing for her, Lange used a wider, faster aperture than that which was taken for the northern California (all-male) photographers Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, W. S. Van Dyk, et al., f64. In his interview included in the book Adams says that they should have made the effort to find out what she was doing (not without noting that what she was doing during the late-1920s was high-society photographic portraits, not the documentation of the displaced she undertook during the 1930s and early 40s).


©2008, 2016, Stephen O. Murray


Documentary about photographer Dorothea Lange


Though I repeated the claim that Henri Cartier-Bresson is “the father of photojournalism,” I think there are other contenders, such as Walker Evans. But for “the mother of photojournalism,” I think that Dorothea Lange (1885-1965) has a lock. I saw a screening of the 1995 documentary “Dorothea Lange: A Visual Life” directed by Meg Partridge that was followed by a Q&A session with the film-maker, her sister Elizabeth (author of a book with the same name), and their father Rondal Partridge, who was photographer Imogen Cunningham’s son, Lange’s assistant during the 1930s, and appears onscreen within the documentary.

The film primarily looks at Lange photos with audtiotaped interviews done in Lange’s last years for KQED (the San Francisco Bay Area’s public radio and television station) and for the Berkeley Oral History Project. In some of these audios, Lange was talking about the photo that the movie camera pans. In others, the film-maker (presumably with input from her father and sister) chose apposite images. There are also stills of Lange, most taken by Rondal Partridge, and interviews of him and some others who knew Lange well. As far as I recall, there is no movie footage of Lange or of her two husbands, painter Maynard Dixon and rural sociologist/economist Paul Taylor.

The documentary that springs to (my) mind for comparison is “The Impassioned Eye” with Henri Cartier-Bresson filmed looking at images he recorded and talking about the circumstances of shooting the photos. The onscreen co-operation of Cartier-Bresson was an advantage not available to Partridge in the case of Lange. It is offset by (1) Lange not being dubbed into English (but speaking it), (2) Lange being far more articulate and self-conscious about what she was trying to do than Cartier-Bresson, and (3) “A Visual Life” being more a moving(-camera) picture than “The Impassioned Eye,” which is a glorified slide show. The Cartier-Bresson documentary is a great slide-show of Cartier-Bresson photographs (and a few drawings he did). “A Visual Life” uses the camera moving over old photos that is central to the documentaries Ken Burns has made.

The vertical dimension of most of Lange’s photos is greater than the horizontal, whereas movie cameras are wider than high. Meg Partridge was acutely keenly aware of the problem (I know that she was from her being able to figure out what I was trying to ask about film composition differing from still-camera composition!)* and showed the whole photo (Lange’s composition) before zooming in or panning up or down through Lange’s photos (what I’d consider Partridge’s compositions using Lange’s images). I think that Partridge’s compositions are very fine and prefer movies to slide shows. Plus the Lange audio plus Lange video portions are interspersed with footage in which the viewer can see lips moving (talking heads).

I think that the choices of images and interviews are excellent and that the 46-minute documentary provides an excellent overview of Lange’s photography with some insights into the difficulties a female professional and mother had in the “man’s world” of (first) studio portrait photography and (then) documentary photography.


Lange’s best-known photographs is the “Okie Madonna,” a mother who was one of those driven west from the “Dust Bowl” erosion during the Great Depression, and of a San Francisco breadline. The human costs of the mechanization of agriculture and the displacement of people (farmers wiped out during the “Dust Bowl,” black cotton sharecroppers becoming factory workers during WWII, the removal of Japanese Americans from the Pacific Coast to concentration camps inland) were what Lange documented most extensively — and intensively (and much of the displacement she documented was occasioned by mechanized/corporate agriculture overwhelming yeoman farmers).

Despite debilitating physical problems, including a leg the growth of which was stunted by polio contracted when she was seven, Lange made many striking photographs and, despite her focus on the downtrodden, managed to get support (from the New Deal federal government and later projects for Life and Fortune magazines). “A Visual Life” shows some beautiful photos of people from Lange’s post-WWII travels with Taylor as well as her better-known documentation of California Central Valley economic refugees and the rounding-up of Japanese Americans.

In the Q&A, Rondal Partridge forcefully presented his view that photography is documentation, not art (which is not, he added, to say that a photograph cannot be beautiful or artfully composed). I don’t see that the two are necessarily opposed. I’m not sure whether Lange thought they were, but I think that many of her photographs are both.

©2008, 2017, Stephen O. Murray

Photographer Paul Strand


Along with Edward Weston (1885-1958), Paul Strand (1890–1976) is my favorite photographer. Both were pioneers of very sharp-focus semi-abstractions, breaking with the gauzy pictorialism of Alfred Stieglitz (1854-1946) et al. Both photographed people as well as objects and landscapes, Weston mostly portraits and nudes, Strand portraits and photos of group. Plus Strand shot movies, most notably “The Plow That Broke the Plains” (1936), which he did not direct, and “Native Land” (1942), which he did. Strand and his friend, the painter Charles Sheeler, also made the pioneer urban documentary “Manhatta” (1921).

I don’t recall who in the 1989 documentary “Strand: Under the Dark Cloth” remarked that Strand didn’t talk about himself, though he was articulate talking and writing about photography in general and particular photographs and series of photographs he took. A very old Georgia O’Keeffe and a not-as-old widow, Hazel Kingsbury Strand, express views of his personality as well as his work in interview segments in the movie, along with Strand’s movie-making partner Leo Hurwitz, but I came away with no sense about the person other than that he was very focused on his work and that he was a man of the left, working on the anti-Fascist (pro-Republic) “Heart of Spain” (1937), and pro-union.


Rather than “in-depth” in any psychological or political sense, the movie provides extensive review of his work, both film clips (whetting my appetite to see the 1936 Mexican fishermen movie “The Wave”) and still photographs, including some of my favorites (the Italian peasant family on their doorstep) and many I don’t recall having seen previously.

I’d have no problem with an 81-minute Strand slideshow, but with access to opinionated people who knew the great photographer, I wish probing and/or follow-up questions had been asked. In particular, the last Mrs. Strand, who was herself a photographer when she met him and helped him, especially as he developed arthritis and was eventually house-bound (photographing their garden) says that she came to loathe photography and stopped photographing. How could an interviewer fail to ask her to explain and elaborate?

I found the music, credited to Québecois composers Jean Derome and René Lussier not quite grating, but at least annoying. Perhaps if I had not been listening to one of the greatest movie music masters, Bernard Hermann, I might have been less annoyed?


At any rate, I would recommend the photographs of Paul Strand to anyone unfamiliar with them, the slideshow and film-clip aspects of the documentary. IMO, the movie, directed by John Walker (A Drummer’s Dream), written by Seaton Findlay (Janis) coulda/shoulda been more engaging, aloof and unrevealing of his personal feelings as Strand was.


©2012, 2016, Stephen O. Murray