Home Fires

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If someone like Laurenz Berges, who is less well known than some of his Düsseldorf Art Academy peers, came to the US and decided to photograph the San Joaquin Valley, I’m imagining that the resulting photographs would be similar in spirit to those in Bruce Haley‘s newly released Home Fires (Vol. I: The Past).

Unfortunately, analysis of what’s usually referred to as the Düsseldorf School of photography has mostly remained at the level of commenting on its preference of oversized prints, its often auction prizes, and the influence of its seminal photographers, Bernd and Hilla Becher. None of this gets at the essence of these artists, which in fact is more pronounced in those who aren’t as famous as Andreas Gursky, Thomas Ruff, or Thomas Struth, artists such as Berges.

The term “deadpan” has often been used to describe the work. While I see the attractiveness of such description, there’s a major flaw, namely the assumption that those who make deadpan work are too cooly detached to have any emotional investment in their work. I think this is a terribly simplistic way of the relating an artist’s photographic language with both her or his emotional life and moral beliefs, and with what is in front of her or his camera.

Sadly, this idea is widely spread: drama, whether internal or external, has to result in dramatic pictures — lest the viewer is unable to come to any conclusions that are appropriate, given the scale of the drama. For example, you can find it behind many of the discussions around photography during the pandemic. I don’t know where this idea is coming from. Having lived in the US for almost two decades, I suspect larger parts of it are driven by the sheer ubiquity of the country’s entertainment industry that has conditioned people into expecting neatly packaged and sufficiently dramatic morsels when dealing with anything that is out of the ordinary.

Maybe a much better way to describe many deadpan pictures would be to say that they’re analytically photographed: A scene isn’t merely seen (which when it’s done well already separates out an artist’s eye), it’s also carefully and analytically described. Such description pierces the heart in very different ways than when there’s visual drama. As a viewer, you don’t realise what’s going on until it’s too late (assuming you’re going to bring along the patience required to look, given your aforementioned conditioning).

Despite the book’s title, there are no fires in Home Fires (Vol. I: The Past). Whether in Australia or in the Western parts of the US, large, barely controllable wildfires have become a regular part of the news. But global warming is hitting us with a combination of effects, some of which make for visual drama while many others do not.

When Haley photographed the San Joaquin Valley, it was in the middle of a severe drought that lasted from 2011 until 2017. The less severe version is ongoing and accelerating. In combination with increasing temperatures, it’s going to be lethal for a region that has been — but in the long run is unlikely to continue to be — a rich agricultural region.

It’s not just the photographer’s approach that evoked Düsseldorf artists, it’s also the choice of season: Haley photographed in winter, when the Valley’s skies were grey or barely blue, resulting in the kinds of pictures that often would not feel out of place had they come from, say, Northern Germany’s flat plains. The winter light made for a great tool, resulting in muted, greyish tones that blend into each other and leave an overall feeling of dread, of something being desperately amiss. The photographs are in colour, but more often than not, they look or feel monochromatic.

Haley presents us with the view of a completely ravished land, a land that resembles the post-Soviet ruinscapes he portrayed before (however different his earlier approach towards those lands might have been). Even when they are not actual ruins, structures look as if they were. From the pictures, you wouldn’t know that there still is considerable life in this part of the world, however much it is now at threat (a threat that is likely to only get worse as all efforts to combat climate change have been rejected by roughly half of the country).

Seen that way, the pictures in the book are a description of what it already is for some of the time and a prediction of what the land will permanently become: an environment hostile to the creatures — we humans — who are responsible for the very hostility. In his introduction, Haley speaks of his family arriving in the area just before the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. A desperate wish to find more fertile grounds drove many people further West — ultimately resulting in the destruction of those grounds.

In all kinds of ways, Home Fires (Vol. I: The Past) makes for uncomfortable viewing. Like I said before, that analytical description of the land pierces your heart before you even know what happened to you. There’s no obvious visual drama; through the accumulation of a lot of photographs there is the built-up drama of something being very terribly wrong. Unfortunately, the Düsseldorfy approach will have some people hesitant to spend time with the book, but that’s their loss.

Climate change is hitting us on a daily basis. We’re just not capable of seeing or feeling it: everything changes so slowly. We can only see the most dramatic outcomes, which make for dramatic TV (or photographs): tornadoes, wildfires, floods, hurricanes, snow and cold in unlikely places… At the same time, these outcomes are impossibly difficult to connect with our own lived reality: what do wildfires have to do with driving cars that run on burning fossil fuels?

In the ravaged land depicted by Bruce Haley, there are hints of connections, such as when oil drilling stations are visible, or when there are artificial canals diverting the water towards a destination other than its natural one. But at the end of the day, it’s upon us to make the connections (and vote out the bums who still refuse to properly deal with the disaster that is going to hit the next generations much harder than us).

Photography can only so much. If either the dramatic pictures coming from the now ubiquitous natural disasters don’t change your thinking nor the accumulation of quietly desperate photographs in  Home Fires (Vol. I: The Past) then, I’m afraid, you can’t be helped.

It’s just a crying shame that future generations will have to suffer the consequences of our collective can’t-be-helped comfort.

Home Fires (Vol. I: The Past); photographs by Bruce Haley; texts by Kirsten Rian and Bruce Haley; 144 pages; Daylight Books; 2020

Rating: Photography 4.5, Book Concept 3.0, Edit 3.0, Production 4.0 – Overall 3.8

The Photograph Isn’t the Landscape

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The artist, we are told, “photographs landscapes with a medium-format analog camera […] From this archived material she then constructs new landscapes”. If you’ve kept an eye on recent photobook releases, you would imagine that these words describe the work of Dafna Talmor. For sure they do. But I actually sourced the quote from Beate Gütschow‘s website, from the page that showcases her landscape photographs.

Had I shown you the photographs produced by these two artists side by side, you probably would have reacted to them very differently. Visually, their images have very little in common. Gütschow’s pictures very clearly depict landscapes, with various visual references to the tradition of landscape painting. If you have a keen eye, you can probably see that the images were produced with the help of a computer.

Talmor’s, in contrast, only very remotely look like images of landscapes. They’re fractured and disjointed, betraying the way they have been montaged: they were physically constructed. Your keen eye here will tell you that they were printed from montaged negatives (as opposed to Gütschow’s that were montaged in the computer using scans).

Despite their very different way of working, which results in very different looking pictures, these two artists have a lot in common. They both look at the idea of “the landscape” as it is — or maybe I should say: can be — expressed with photographs. After all, photography is one of those media where before the construction of an image comes the capture of the raw material it is produced from.

There’s nothing new to the idea of constructing a landscape from constituent parts. In the 1800s, artists such as Gustave Le Gray produced photographs from more than one negative. Given photographic materials were unable to render the sky and land (or sea) at the same time, he would make two exposures — one for the sky and another one for the land (sea) below — and combine them in the darkroom.

We have, after all, certain expectations when we encounter a photograph of a landscape, which is not the same as the landscape itself. To use Alfred Korzybski’s wording, neither a map nor a photograph are the territory. But there are other aspects. Landscapes come with a large number of ideas and feelings, many of which we arrive at through socialisation and cultural background.

For example, there is nothing particularly distinct about German forests other than that they’re in Germany. But culturally, they are thus loaded with all kinds of ideas and notions (not all of them entirely wholesome) that give most Germans the feeling to have entered a special place once they’re surrounded by all the trees. Thus, there’s forest and there’s “forest” (or rather, in German, Wald and “Wald”). As someone not from Germany, you simply won’t ever be able to access the latter.

Landscapes in general operate the same way, and it is exactly this idea that is picked up on by Gütschow and Talmor. Talmor expresses this in the interview that is included in Constructed Landscapes, the survey of her work, now out with FW:Books. Speaking about her various travels and her photographing, she says “I didn’t know why I was doing it; I just felt a compulsion to take pictures. When I came back to the studio, and looked at the contact sheets, I was always disappointed with the images — they weren’t really doing anything very interesting in themselves.” (p. 175; my emphasis) The photograph isn’t the landscape.

Unlike the source photographs, Talmor’s landscape images are interesting. They operate in this strange (art lingo: liminal) place where they clearly reveal the process of montage while at the same time presenting a landscape as well. Often, the constituent parts don’t fit perfectly — to the point of larger chunks of an image being a blank space (a visual terra incognita of sorts).

I usually find photography that centres on its own process tedious and boring. But Talmor’s is one of the few cases where process and idea actually overlap, so I’m always made to look beyond process. In other words, the work does not limit itself to “look what I can do” — that sad end point of so much very process-based photography.

Constructed Landscapes presents the images first, at times employing gatefolds to great effect. Afterwards, a surprisingly large number of other materials are presented, including variants of the same picture obtained through different work in the darkroom (or different papers to print on), individual (positive) source images, negatives, and images of montaged negatives.

In a nutshell, the book doubles as a studio visit — a refreshing approach to photobook making where the overall process mostly remains invisible. The sheer number of variants feels a little overwhelming; I’m not sure I needed to see all of it. And I found myself wondering why some images were chosen over others to constitute the end result. But these are merely minor aspects of the book.

I’m a little bit worried that a reader might arrive at the impression that somehow there is a deal of sorts between Hans Gremmen, the mastermind behind FW:Books, and me. There is not. It’s just that Gremmen very consistently produces the perfect book for a given body of work. In light of the following, though, I thought I needed to point this out.

The form of Constructed Landscapes incorporates the idea of constructedness: it’s basically a text block without a hard or softcover wrapped around it, exposing the rough glue-string construction of the industrial Smyth-sewn binding. Different stock is used for the different parts of the book (plates, essays, index). As always the design is elegant while avoiding the ostentatiousness that at times creeps into Dutch photobook design.

In a nutshell, you could take the book and present it as a study case of excellent contemporary photobook design and production. This elevates and serves the work — the pictures in question — without attracting too much attention to itself. Perfect.

Constructed Landscapes; photographs by Dafna Talmor; texts by Cherry Smyth, Olga Smith, Shoair Mavlian, Gemma Padley and Dafna Talmor; 210 pages (10 gatefolds); FW:Books; 2020

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The Twenty Years War

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“At least 800,000 people have died due to direct war violence, including armed forces on all sides of the conflicts, contractors, civilians, journalists, and humanitarian workers. […] The cost of the Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria wars totals about $6.4 trillion.” writes the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University in the summary of its Costs of War Project. “This does not include future interest costs on borrowing for the wars, which will add an estimated $8 trillion in the next 40 years.”

There is no end in sight. This year, the United States will have been in a constant state of war for 20 years, with very little to show for it. But war for sure is a mighty drug. President Biden wasted little time after he sworn in, ordering his first air strike on 26 February, 2021. Meanwhile, a large number of those displaced by the wars have created the European migrant crisis.

I remember that at some stage I tried to understand the Thirty Years War. It was a real struggle, and to some extent, it still is. How could a war last 30 years and in many areas of the affected countries result in population losses of over 60%? Now, these numbers don’t seem so abstract any longer. After all, the United States has been at war for almost as long as I have lived here. In tandem, the militarization of its society has been ever increasing.

For a while, especially at the very beginning, things were pretty scary. I remember that when an acquaintance moved to California, he decided to drive cross country. For his trip, he got his car decked out in those yellow-ribbon “Support the troops” magnets, knowing he wouldn’t easily make it through the so-called heartland without those. Now, things feel a little different. But it’s not clear to me whether it’s because things have moved back a little bit or whether we’ve just got used to the jingoism.

Peter van Agtmael has been documenting the Twenty Year War since its very beginning. I first spoke with him in 2007 and then again ten years later. He has published a number of books, all of them essential records of a country too embroiled in its own senseless militarism to recognise the folly of it all. There’s Disco Night Sept. 11, there is Buzzing at the Sill, and now there is Sorry for the War.

Rooted in traditional photojournalism, each of these books took the genre’s main conventions and tweaked them towards something that is a little bit less of the moment and more for that point in time where sudden enlightenment — to borrow a term from Zen Buddhism — might happen: what the fuck have we done?

Of course, we’re still waiting for our collective sudden enlightenment. Just look at this graph — that mountain range after the year 2000, that’s the Twenty Years War.

As its title indicates, Sorry for the War isn’t a book that sees sudden enlightenment happening any time soon. Instead, it observes how one insanity morphs into the next, as more and more lives are funnelled through the meat grinder that has been laying waste to larger parts of the Middle East and that has been mentally devastating those who volunteered or were forced to partake in it.

So the meat is ground and ground and ground, and Van Agtmael has the pictures that show some causes and effects and consequences. Just like in the Thirty Years War, it’s hard to keep up with what is cause and effect, and it’s hard to keep up with who is involved.

Slowly, yet steadily, the ripple effects of the war have been reaching further and further out, with, let’s say, Islamic terrorists spawned by a number of disastrous choices in Iraq killing Parisians, and the photographer happens to be right there, too (it was Paris Photo time).

At this stage, it would be tempting to write that the war essentially sustains itself. But such a statement would absolve those who have it in their power to stop it. There is a very telling photograph that shows mostly blue carpet and some wood-panelled long desk, with heavy leather chairs behind it — the US Senate, with its Armed Services Committee (support for the Twenty Years War might be the only bipartisan issue left).

Another photograph shows neo-fascist television personality Sean Hannity in what looks like a somewhat gaudily decorated Greek restaurant. There’s a man behind him, seemingly attempting to hold Hannity back by grabbing his right arm. But Hannity is having none of it. There is, after all, further meat to be ground, and it’s not the one in the restaurant’s kitchen.

Sorry for the War uses a number of video stills to point at the crucial role played by propaganda. These images include still from speeches by US presidents as much as from an ISIS video, Hollywood movies, anti-terrorism commercials, a Toby Keith video, or America’s Got Talent.

And there is one of Van Agtmael’s older pictures in a picture: a spread from a copy of Penthouse in 2009. The photographer is aware of his own role. He is not an outside observer (there are no outside observers: my own tax dollars fund the meat grinder, too).

The war might go on for another ten (or twenty) years — who knows? Looking at the book I came away with the feeling that the photographer knows that having chronicled things for so long now means that there will have to be something else — lest he becomes swallowed up by the meat grinder as well.

As photographers or writers we should all be so lucky: to have devoted so much time and energy on such an important topic, to have produced three incredible books that say so much, in such poignant fashions — as our country’s war rages on and on and on. Of course, it’s not luck that has been driving Peter van Agtmael. Instead, it’s his dogged devotion to the idea that the truth will win out in the end.

Highly recommended.

Sorry for the War; photographs and text by Peter van Agtmael; 200 pages; Mass Books; 2021

Rating: Photography 4.0, Book Concept 4.0, Edit 3.0, Production 4.5 – Overall 4.0

Still, Life

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It’s now about a year into living with the pandemic in my neck of the woods. Roughly the same time span applies in many other parts of the world, excluding China, which experienced its outbreak a lot earlier. If you would have told me before that we would collectively experience a major event, my prediction would have been that we’d see the emergence of a large sense of solidarity. I am not sure to what extent this actually played out.

Right away, it seemed clear to everybody in photoland that the pandemic would become a major topic for pictures. At some stage, there would appear the first bodies of work. Initial efforts had me a little disheartened: there are only so many pictures of deserted streets or people standing behind windows with hand-drawn signs I can look at.

Meanwhile, in the larger world of news photography there have been the (almost inevitable) complaints that somehow, there have not been any iconic photographs. Frankly, I don’t know where such complaints would be coming from, given a number of truly heartbreaking pictures have been made. Go Nakamura’s photograph of a doctor hugging an elderly patient in a Covid ICU expresses the most one can hope for, right at the edge where both photography and words can only fail.

Now the first publications with images from the pandemic are trickling in. One example is provided by Stil Leven/Still Life. In March 2020, the Dutch Droom en Daad Foundation commissioned six photographers from Rotterdam to the pandemic in their hometown. The project was overseen by Hanneke Mantel, and the contributing photographers are Loes van Duijvendijk, Marwan Magroun, Geisje van der Linden, Naomi Modde, Willem de Kam, and Khalid Amakran. What did they come up with?

Van Duijvendijk turned her lens on a locked down city, with only two living creatures in sight. One is a cat, and the other one is a vendor in a little outdoor stand that’s shaped like an orange. Without any customers present and placed seemingly lost in otherwise grey neoliberal architecture, the kitschy cuteness of the stand serves to re-enforce to what extent we rely on such devices to distract us from our otherwise drab existences.

Magroun documented essential workers some of whom at least initially received daily support in the form of public clapping. Remember those days? I suppose improved work situations and better pay would have been even nicer. But now we’re at the stage where neo-Nazis march against restrictions, and a bunch of people are publicly burning masks in Idaho. In light of all of this I’ve been trying to imagine how I felt if I were an essential worker. One can only hope pictures like Magroun’s will remind people of the fact that many others literally risked their lives to keep things running.

Van der Linden’s photographs centre around a single person, a human-rights activist from Yemen who got separated from his wife and young son (they’re both still in Yemen). The pandemic has been especially hard for the most vulnerable people. This group not only includes essential workers or poor people, it also encompasses people who had to or have to flee poverty and/or persecution: migrants. These pictures here show how much we all have in common. One can hope that they allow us to realise how much good might arise out of more solidarity.

Modde portrayed a number of families with young children in their homes all over Rotterdam. The pandemic has been very difficult for children and parents, and Modde deserves credit for picking up on this so early. There are only so many things photographs can convey. But the overall sense of being lost in one’s own home, having to deal with computers as interfaces to the outside world, comes across strongly.

De Kam produced maybe the most poignant photograph in the book (which is on its cover). It shows a hand that places a glass of orange juice and a slice of cake on a plate on the floor, reaching in through a door that’s barely open. Before the pandemic, we might not have easily come to the conclusion that we arrive at now: there is only one reason why one would not interact with a person in the same household. The text indeed informs the viewer that the photographer’s partner was infected with the virus, and they were unable to be in the same room. It shudders one to imagine this same drama playing out in countless households.

Lastly, Amakran made portraits of a number of Rotterdammers and asked them to write some texts for him. These are reproduced as handwritten notes next to the photographs (an English-language translation is shown right next to them). The notes are mostly banal, but that’s what makes them so poignant: even without a sick partner in the house, for many of us life has become a silent drama, in which worries about one’s health and livelihood (job) aren’t exactly helped by the aforementioned anti-mask protesters (not even to mention neoliberal politicians who’d rather save their precious economy than actual people).

I don’t know whether we still want to look at pictures from the pandemic when this is over. I’m sure I personally don’t want to be reminded of the virus. However, as I mentioned above, there are various things the pandemic has reminded us of, namely how living under neoliberal capitalism has eroded our sense of solidarity, our sense of being able to see other people for who they are (instead of seeing them as means to an end).

Thus, we should be looking at photographs made during the pandemic. As a broad collection of topics, made by and covering a diverse group of people living in the Netherlands, I think that Stil Leven/Still Life will be placed in the company of older books that documented a large-scale disaster (Mantel mentions the 1953 De Ramp photobook, which showed that year’s disastrous flood).

Stil Leven/Still Life; photographs by Loes van Duijvendijk, Marwan Magroun, Geisje van der Linden, Naomi Modde, Willem de Kam, Khalid Amakran; texts by Hanneke Mantel, Wilfried de Jong; 116 pages; Hannibal Books; 2021

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Tomorrow’s Snow

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Whatever you want to say about Instagram “Stories”, one account that does them really well is called Behind the Scars, a project by Sophie Mayanne. I think right now, they’re taken over twice a week, with a different person (often, but not always, a young woman) talking about some scars on their body and the underlying medical and/or mental reason(s).

As a man, I never had to worry about scars at all: if you had one, that usually was and still is seen as a reflection of some form of manliness (this never made any sense to me). Over the years, I’ve come to learn that for women (let alone someone not identifying within this set of binary choices), the situation is very different: there is the double whammy of scars being seen as a sign of weakness and of societal beauty standards that dictate how one is to present oneself.

As far as mental health is concerned, the “rules” change a little. Given mental scars are invisible — as is mental suffering — contemporary society still stigmatizes people dealing with mental-health issues to a considerable degree.

As someone who has been suffering from depression for decades, I know the kinds of blank stares one gets when talking about it: you can almost see the other person’s mental wheels going, to prevent them from saying something really inappropriate (btw, if in such a situation you start a sentence with “can’t you just…” to offer advice, that’s already not helpful — regardless of how well meaning your intentions might be).

In the Behind the Scars Stories, the connection between physical and mental health usually becomes very clear: physical trauma often triggers mental trauma, and having to conform to societal expectations only serves to compound the problem(s).

The same mechanism plays out in Sonja Trabandt‘s Übermorgen Schnee (Tomorrow’s Snow) [nb: the German translation of übermorgen is “day after tomorrow”; I’m sticking with the publisher’s English language title here). When her best friend, a young woman whose name is only given as “A.”, was diagnosed with cancer, Trabandt helped her deal with her experiences. At some point in time, when it felt appropriate to Trabandt to take pictures, this became a part of the process of dealing with what A. was going through.

I find the initial hesitation to bring in photography good for a number of reasons. Most importantly, it speaks of the deep care the photographer felt for her friend. Life and friendship are more important than making pictures.

In the book, I don’t think as a viewer I would have picked up on anything missing from the pictures. That said, the turning of A. into someone who is completely anonymous — there are no direct portraits — removes me a few steps too far from that care and empathy.

It’s obviously easy for me to write this since I’m not talking about my own privacy. At the same time, I have been watching the Behind the Scars Stories, which dive deeply into personal matters without ever feeling intrusive: here, though, it is the persons themselves who decide what and/or how much to reveal.

At the end of Übermorgen Schnee, there is a longer text in which A. talks about some of the things that were most important for her. I found the text very deeply touching, in particular also because it talks about the severe depression the young woman plunged in after she was healed from cancer.

For the most part, text and images remain separate (there’s an index with thumbnails in the back). Text and images each have their separate ways of describing the world. In the photographs, a combination of still lifes, landscapes, and staged/arranged images, the main topic — cancer and all of its consequences — is very clearly communicated.

While A.’s scars are all internal, there was one other bodily factor which not surprisingly took on supreme importance: the loss of hair caused by the chemicals flushing through the body. I was aware of this aspect of cancer treatment, yet the way the book makes it a focal point (which is later reflected in A.’s writing) is very effective and — despite the often a little bit too formal and staged nature of some of the photographs — very touching.

A photograph that shows A. lying on a bed in a fetal position while cradling her own bald head is deeply affecting. Roughly thirty pages later, there is another picture from what looks like a similar point in time that shows one side of the bald head, a hand near the ear and one eye almost peeking into the frame. The deep sense of vulnerability and hurt couldn’t have been communicated more effectively.

Near the end of the book, there are ample photographs from a later joint trip by A. and Trabandt (the text makes this clear). I can’t help but feel that the photographs don’t convey the importance that the trip might have had for the two of them. But the addition of images full of sunshine and joy provide a good ending for the book — after a long period of physical and mental suffering, all is well.

This might sound like such a trivial conclusion in written form, but it must have been so deeply felt by the two people involved in the book, the photographer and her close friend, A.: all is well again.

The book’s penultimate picture shows A. lying on a bed, and the viewer can almost make out her full features. Apart from the two other photographs I wrote about earlier, this is the picture I respond most strongly to. Like I wrote, I understand the reasons for the anonymity. But the photographic anonymity comes at a price, with some of the artifice removing the viewer a step or two from the urgency of what’s on view.

Dealing with photography always involves some form of trade off: you can have some things at the expense of others — both photographically and in a larger sense. You’ll have to make decisions, especially if you’re trying to tell someone else’s story. Up until now, these decisions have been mostly driven by photographers, resulting in the consequences that have now become increasingly contested.

A recalibration of photographic approaches thus has been long overdue. In the end, we all can only gain from photography not always being done at the expense of those who find themselves in front of the camera. As viewers, this will inevitably force us to deal with our own expectations and preferences — it’s about time we realize that as viewers we are part of the very context photography operates in.

Übermorgen Schnee [Tomorrow’s Snow]; photographs by Sonja Trabandt; texts by Sonja Trabandt and A.; 136 pages; Hartmann Books; 2020

Rating: Photography 3.5, Book Concept 3.0, Edit 3.0, Production 4.5 – Overall 3.6