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Photographer Henry Diltz: Rock's Living History (Interview)

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RCM:  Even outdoor, never used 100?
HD:  Nope, I never bought any Panatomic or Plus-X or any of that. You just shoot F-16 at 500th of a second or whatever it was. I never shot in the sunlight; I always shot in the shade.  Because, especially musicians, if they’re in the sunlight they’re going to squint, or you get shadows under the nose. So, automatically, I knew you never have someone stand in the bright sunlight.
RCM:  Maybe I’m misremembering seeing some of your famous covers shot in the direct sunlight.
HD:  Not really. Or it would be at the end of the day, at magic hour, 4, 5 o’clock. The Eagles, out at the ranch in Agoura, it wasn’t bright and sunny, it was kind of overcast, in the shade.

RCM:  Desperado, the album cover, is still one of my favorites.
HD: I like the back better than the front. The posse sitting there.
RCM:  In your job as a photographer, that’s almost considered a conceptual photo styling. Were you responsible?
HD: It was kind of an accident. The one I took was slide film that we developed sepia tone.  I took one roll of black and white but the best shot is not on the black and white roll.
RCM:  So the one that went to the album was color done sepia.
HD:  Right, and we had it developed that way. It was some special way that my partner knew about. I started working with a partner called Gary Burden, who was an art director, and we did a lot of covers together. We did The Doors Morrison Hotel, and we did CSN sitting on the couch. We did a whole lot of covers. We ended up doing virtually all of the stuff for Geffen-Roberts. It was Lookout Management that managed CSN and The Eagles and people like that. Then Lookout became Geffen-Roberts.
RCM:  Did they hire you or was it the musicians themselves?
HD: We were kind of a given, we were all a family. Whenever they needed anything, whether it was Jackson Browne, or CSN, or Neil Young, we were the guys that did it. We were like the in-house team. Plus we knew all these guys, we hung out with them at The Troubadour and all over. And I was a musician so we were all friends.
So we did their first album cover out in the desert, in Joshua Tree. We just drove out there in the middle of the night, climbed a mountain, ate peyote buttons, and spent the day laughing and taking photos. So that was the first cover, which was really just cactuses and the sky.
So for the second album, which was later that same year, ’72, they had this concept, this cowboy thing. My partner Gary took them all to get these clothes at Western Costume, which was used for movies. They went through the racks and rented all these great things, probably stuff that John Wayne wore, and stuff that all kinds of cowboys wore in movies. And then they got real pistols.
Henry Diltz Eagles Gunfire
RCM:  Yes – in some of your shots, smoke is coming out!
HD:  They’re movie-load blanks. Movie-load blanks make extra noise, extra fire –even fire shoots out sometimes– extra smoke. So then we went out to Agoura where there was this old ghost town that was desolate, that was unused.
We had no real plan. We thought, “why don’t you guys come backing out of the bank?” We took a lot of photos standing around talking, we had horses…
RCM: Were the Eagles comfortable with the horses?
HD: Yeah, they were having a great time. We said, “let’s pretend that you guys have robbed the bank, and you’re backing out of the bank with your guns blazing!” So they’re backing out, and all of the roadies come running down the street like the posse.  Basically we were playing cowboys. They would shoot, there were stand-offs, there was drawing and shooting, a guy would “aaaahhh!” – fall in the street.
RCM:  Noise?
HD: Yeah, bang! Bang! Bang!  And what happened was, later in the afternoon, there was so much shooting going on, ‘cause there were these four guys and about eight other guys all shooting at the same time, guns blazing, that a cloud of smoke slowly rose over the Malibu Hills. Pretty soon fire engines came. People had said the hills were on fire!  So the fire engines came and we all had a big laugh.
They had their pals with them: Jackson Browne, and J.D. Souther. Well, J.D. Souther had brought a book of western outlaws from the 1800s. Photographs. And there was a photo of the actual Dalton Brothers lying dead in the street. When the posses would capture these gangs and kill them they would pose very proudly with the dead outlaws, tied up like so many jack rabbits or coyotes, tied up dead in the street. So we just kind of copied that picture. It wasn’t a plan until we got out there and saw the book.
RCM: Did Gary typically stage or compose these sessions?
HD:  It was both of us.  Gary is the guy who gets the initial idea.  He’s the vibe guy.  He knew where this place was.  He knew where to get the outfits.  Then it’s up to me to get the visual part. Gary would suggest things: “get a big wide angle,” or “I want you to get some close-ups.”
RCM:  He’s like the director and you’re the cinematographer?
HD:  Kinda like that.
RCM:  You really got those guys looking dead.
HD:  They were great at it.

HD: Their premise was: if we weren’t rock n roll guitar slingers, we would’ve been gun slingers. If we lived a hundred years earlier, in 1872, for sure we would’ve been bad boys, we would’ve had guns. It’s same rock n roll feeling – live on the edge!
I loved that album, ‘cause I loved the song Desperado, but when we took the pictures I hadn’t really heard the song yet. Same thing with Sweet Baby James, James Taylor.  I did that cover before I ever heard the album, because typically you do the picture before the album.  I loved Sweet Baby James, and I’m really proud to have taken the picture for one of my favorite albums.
RCM: A lot of people, and even fans of your photographs probably don’t know that you started out as a musician, and had quite a career at it.  Can you talk about the Modern Folk Quartet and how you started out?
HD:  When I got out of West Point, I went to Hawaii. Someone said to look up Cyrus Faryar, in the drama department at University. I enrolled to study Psychology, bought a banjo and brought it with me.  I had learned a little bit from Pete Seeger’s How to Play the 5 String Banjo book. I was beginning.
I asked if anyone knew him and was told he started a coffee house down in Waikiki called Greensleeves Coffee House. I walked in and asked for him and the first thing he said was: “A banjo!” And then we were best friends from that moment on. I didn’t know that he had a coffee house, I didn’t know he played music.
I started going down every night to play the banjo with Cyrus, who would play his 12 string, and we had a little duo going. And in those days in the coffee house all kinds of folk musicians would come by. Finally we formed a little group there, what became the Modern Folk Quartet.  We started playing clubs – we played in a steak house every night for a year – we were tight. We did four-part harmony, which was kind of sophisticated for folk music. Then we came to L.A. to seek our fortune.
The second night we were in town we played The Troubadour on amateur night. We got up and we started on the Ox Driver song. When we got to the chorus and we broke in on this harmony, the whole audience stood up clapping. It was like, what the hell is going on?! It was because we were so tight and they hadn’t heard of us. Peter, Paul and Mary were just about to come out, The Kingston Trio, The Journeymen, Chad Mitchell probably had started, but they were all in the early infancy days.

We got an agent that night. Folk music was so huge, and growing, and so immediately people were interested. We got such a reception that managers and agents were immediately coming up to us.
RCM:  What kind of music were you listening to at the time?
HD: In Hawaii – all The Kingston Trio albums. They were our gods.  Like The Beatles, later. The only other group that you’d run out and get their latest album, move the needle back (‘what are they playing?’) a hundred times to get that little lick.
RCM:  Have you met Pete Seeger?
HD:  I have, a couple of times. He’s definitely my hero. I was hypnotized by the banjo. I just loved playing it.  I still do.  So we came to L.A., we immediately had success, signed to Warner Bros label, and toured all over the country. We did two folk albums.
Then this is what happened to folk music: The Beatles played Ed Sullivan in ’64.  And all the folk groups went electric. We had a stand-up bass and acoustic guitars. We saw them on Ed Sullivan on that night and we said, independently of everyone else– ‘Holy shit, that’s the kind of music I want to make. Happy, joyous music!’ We went out and got an electric bass – I even electrified my banjo – and then as music changed and became more psychedelic, we became a folk-rock group.  And so did all the other groups – you had Buffalo Springfield, The Byrds…
RCM:  Mostly covers or did the Modern Folk Quartet have any songwriters?
HD: We all tried writing songs but we never had any hits.
On the pop scene you had people who wrote songs and the people who sung them – they were two different people. That was always traditionally that way.  But then when folk music started, I think Bob Dylan might’ve been the first guy.  He loved Woody Guthrie, and he wrote a song, a tribute to Woody Guthrie.  And then other people started writing songs:  James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Stephen Stills, Neil Young. All these people were the earliest singer/songwriters.
And that is what happened in ’68, ’69, ’70, it was the heyday of the singer/songwriter. All of the people in this book are singer/songwriters that came out of that time. It was Laurel Canyon, it was California. It was also New York, a little bit. Paul Simon was New York. James Taylor was East Coast.
RCM:  Talk about your song This Could be the Night, and working with Phil Spector.
OK, so after three years of playing folk music we made the switch to playing folk-rock. We were playing a lot of clubs around L.A– The Whisky, there was a club called The Action in Hollywood, and The Trip, the famous club on the Sunset Strip. We played there about five times opening for The Four Tops, opening for Donovan, we opened for The Velvet Underground, and during that time Spector came and saw us. He wanted to try some of this “new music,” folk-rock.
The story goes that he wanted The Lovin’ Spoonful but they weren’t willing to change their sound.  They weren’t willing to be Spector-ized. We didn’t care. We spent a summer going to his house every day and playing. He’d play the 12 string, we’d stand around the piano, just getting us geared up. After about three months he said he’d found a song for us, a Harry Nilsson song. [This Could be the Night.] It was really a Harry Nilsson song but then Spector changed a few chords. We knew Harry. We did that song and waited around for months for it to come out. Finally Cyrus went back to Hawaii and said, call me when it comes out.

Modern-Jazz-Quartet-Phil-Spector

Modern Folk Quartet getting “Spectorized.” Henry Diltz with Phil Spector.

It didn’t come out for a couple of years. [Spector] was so paranoid at that time, he had karate instructors as bodyguards, and if it wasn’t number 1, his reputation would be lowered.  He wasn’t sure it was a hit so he didn’t put it out for years, until it came out on an album called Rare Masters, in England. It’s become popular since then. Rodney (on-the-ROQ) Bingenheimer, it’s his theme song.
RCM:  Then you re-recorded it in ’87?
HD: For his show.
RCM:  Did Harry sing on it originally?
HD:  He didn’t sing on it, but he came in there and bitched, a bit drunk—“Give me another track!” “Erase the drums!” Rodney wanted to put out his own album and he wanted that song on it, but Phil Spector wouldn’t let anyone use it. It’s his song; he won’t let anyone touch it. So we had to re-record it.
While we recorded [the original version]Brian Wilson came down and was sitting in the control room in his robe and slippers. He was our hero! Our warm up song was Get Around. He listened to it over and over, mesmerized by it. We didn’t even talk to him, he was just in the other room listening. From then on every time I’d see Brian Wilson he would say how much he loved the song [This Could be the Night] and that he was going to record it someday. This went on a dozen times. I couldn’t wait until the Beach Boys get a hold of that and REALLY do it, with great harmonies.

He finally recorded it for a Harry Nilsson tribute album and it’s the exact same arrangement as ours. He loved Spector so much he wouldn’t dare change a note. He idolizes Phil Spector, he idolizes that sound. So he put it out and it sounds just like ours! I’ve become really good friends with Brian Wilson over that song. His friends say every time he sits down at a piano, that’s the song he plays. It’s his favorite song. Not because we sang it, because of Spector.
RCM:  How many instruments did you play with the Modern Folk Quartet?

HD:  I played banjo, clarinet, and harmonica in the folk thing. Then electric banjo. It’s not bluegrass, more like backbeats, like a piano chord, keeping a rhythm.
RCM:  And you all still play together, right?
HD:  We went to Japan last month, November. We’re still friends. Jerry Yester and I played on two or three other Spector sessions. We were part of the “Wall of Sound,” which was great fun.
Cyrus went to Hawaii, saying he wasn’t going to wait around. We took a sabbatical for ten years. I became a photographer, Chip [Douglas] produced The Monkees, Jerry [Yester] produced Tom Waits, Cyrus went to Hawaii and produced some Hawaiian albums. We went on our merry way.  In 1976 it was the bicentennial and everyone was interested in folk music again. So we got an offer to go play a hotel in Hawaii for two weeks if we could get back together. Then we played the Ice House in Pasadena many, many times. And in those days when a group played a club, you always played for a week. We did 50 folk clubs across the country and back, and we always played for a week. The Troubadour, The Whiskey, The Trip, always for a week.
RCM:  Were the folk clubs back in the day like the stereotypes most people imagine – poets, beatniks, people snapping their fingers and drinking coffee…?
HD: By the time it was folk-rock it was drinking beer, margaritas! Everybody was smoking grass. There was a switch in the early ‘60s. In those same coffee houses where the poems were read and the beatniks were people started bringing in guitars. Pretty soon they became folk clubs.
RCM:  Lore has it the first photo you actually sold was of the Buffalo Springfield?  In front of a mural?
HD:  Yes – a club called The Psychic Eye in Redondo Beach.
In ’66, our last tour across the country, I get this camera, start photographing my friends, and then one day Stephen Stills– he’d been a fan of ours since ’63 when we played The Village Gate in New York, a jazz club. He would come down to see us. He was a young kid, like 19. So we were old friends by the time ’67 came around and I was here.
So in Laurel Canyon one day, I heard music coming out of a house while I was walking by. I knew the person who lived there and I knocked on the door, and Stephen was in there playing. He said, “hey, Henry, later today we’re going down to this folk club to do a soundcheck, do you want to come along?”
I said yeah ‘cause I wanted to photograph people on the beach for my slide show. I hadn’t made the connection yet to being a music photographer. I just wanted photos to excite my friends, anything trippy.
That one day when I went with Stephen down to the Redondo Beach sound check, they were in there rehearsing– Neil Young, Stephen Stills, and I’m out on the beach photographing and when I walk back to the club there’s a big mural on the back wall, a painted, pink mural that I thought would look great in the slide show.

So I’m shooting the mural and out the back door comes the group, done with their sound check. So I said, “hey you guys, just stand there a minute,” because I wanted to show the scale. You couldn’t tell how big this thing was. I still didn’t think, Eureka! I’m gonna be a music photographer!
The funny thing was that they did an interview with Teen Set Magazine and they needed a picture. They said, “Our friend Henry took some.” So I get a call: “Henry, we hear you have a picture of the Buffalo Springfield, we’ll pay you $100 to run it.”
So my first epiphany was when I saw the first slide hit the wall glowing, in color. The second epiphany was when someone offered to pay me $100!  I thought it was so great ‘cause I was spending all of my musician money on film and processing. “You mean somebody will pay me to do this thing that I do all the time and can’t stop doing anyway?”
From then on they would call me. That was the magazine that had me shoot The Monkees. Later on they wanted me to shoot The Partridge Family. Then I became good friends with David Cassidy, went around the world with him for 2 or 3 years. I became his photographer, his buddy. It was great fun. He was an international star.
RCM:  Talk a little bit about the photographic equipment you’ve used over the years…
HD: Somewhere along the line I got rid of that Pony because when you rewind it would break the sprockets–! so I got a Honeywell Pentax.  Right after that I did the Buffalo Springfield picture.
I usually had five lenses, because I wanted a super-wide angle (a 28 or a 21), a 35 (which was my favorite, you could get fairly wide), an 85 (which was great for portraits), and then a 135 (which was sort of semi-telephoto).  And then I got a 200, which was quite big, for shooting on stage.  Pretty soon I got my first real job, shooting for The Monkees.
When I was on The Monkees set I had to have two cameras, one black and white and one color, because the magazine wanted both. They wanted cover portraits to use on covers and posters and they wanted black and white negatives ‘cause that’s real sharp, and the body of the magazine had black and white articles and black and white photos, and then they had full page color photos. So when they were running around doing stuff I would use black and white, and when they were standing still I would sit there quietly with my telephoto and just watch.  Waiting… for a laugh or smile…
So I would shoot all day, and the Pentaxes would bang against the light stands, or I would put them down and they’d drop – I was using them pretty hard.  And the Pentaxes wouldn’t stand up to that.  I had to get a third camera – one was always in the shop. Finally I had to get a fourth camera– ‘cause one would be in the shop, one would just be broken, and I’d always have to have two working.  And then… someone stole them all out of the back of my Volkswagen.
RCM:  Stole all your cameras?

HD:  Three bodies, five lenses.   And a friend of mine loaned me his Nikon and from then I switched to Nikons.
RCM:  What year was this?

HD:   In 1968. They were heavy duty.  I never had a telephoto, a zoom lens. You needed faster lenses and the telephotos weren’t fast.
RCM: You always know a Henry Diltz photo. The simplicity, candidness. Was your style a conscious choice?
HD:  I wasn’t that technical. It was always visual to me, I knew it intuitively. Sometimes I would look for a weird angle.  I never went to photo school so I never thought of myself as a photographer. I was a musician who liked to take pictures. I didn’t have that aggression about getting the right shot. I would just wait for the moment.
I  knew that if there were two or three people I’d use a 35, because then you could get two or three people in it. If it was one guy and I wanted to get a nice shot, I’d put the 85 on there. I’d have two cameras, a 35 on one and an 85 on the other.  That would be portrait and regular wide angle.
RCM:  Were there any special techniques you used for focusing, lighting?
One thing I did do was get a spot meter. It’s a separate meter; I never used a meter in the camera and I never used self-focusing or anything, it was all manual. Instead of reading the light around you it would read the light on your face.  I always used a Minolta Spot Meter.
RCM:  How about photo “trickery…” in either developing, or printing?
HD:  I didn’t print many photos, I couldn’t really afford it!  I always kept everything. If they were too light I’d put them in a box of things that were too light. If they were too dark I kept those as well. For my slide shows I could scratch on them, in the emulsion, with a safety pin. For the lighter ones I could get felt-tip pens and I would draw on the emulsion side. It was fun, create double exposures…
See,  I didn’t want to spent all night in darkroom.  All I wanted to do was frame them in the camera and push the button.  To me framing was everything. I never cropped.
RCM:  I read where you describe yourself as more of  a “fly on the wall” photographer.
HD:  One time a record company hired me to shoot the Red Hot Chili Peppers. They were at The Forum. I had full access and they knew there was going to be a photographer. Before the show I walked into the dressing room, they all turned to look at me, I said “hey,” and I don’t take a picture. I sit on the couch, talk to somebody and wait.
Now no one’s looking at me, they’re all involved getting ready.  I take the candid pictures. I think of myself as “the Jane Goodall of photography.”  She’s a good lady and I’m sure she’d hate to hear me say that!  She wouldn’t interact with the chimps ‘cause then she wouldn’t see what’s natural. That’s what I like to do.
I’m fascinated by people, I love people. It’s why I studied Psychology. I like to observe, and that [shooting candidly]became my style. I waited until I saw the picture and then I took it. I didn’t make them do anything. They loved that. I got so many great shots that way because their guard was down.
McCartney & LindaRCM:  How did your famous photographs of Paul and Linda McCartney come about?
HD: I knew Linda as a photographer in New York City before she knew Paul. I met her in a photo lab. When she married Paul she called me one day and said, “Henry, we’re at a house in Malibu, can you come out? We need a picture of both of us.”  She was on the Ram album so they needed shots of the both of them.
Five years later they called me when they were in the Virgin Islands on a boat recording London Town. The road manager on the boat said, “Paul wants you to do that ‘fly on the wall’ thing you do.”
RCM:  Obviously for album cover photo shoots, etc. things would have to be more planned?
HD: When I shot album covers with Gary, I’d take all the pictures and he’d look through them. He had the greatest taste. He’s the one who picked out CSN on the couch. That day we were shooting publicity pictures all over West L.A. There were shots in a store wearing antique clothes, there were shots in a garage, but then we came by this old house and took the pictures on the couch. Gary said “that was the one,” and he laid it out and cropped it. He was very good as an art director.

We developed a thing: whenever we had to do a shoot we would plan an adventure. That got the group out of L.A., away from their phones, their girlfriends, their managers, where we could concentrate and have some fun. I knew, as a musician, that it’s boring to plan a photo-shoot.
Gary would always say, “just shoot everything. Film is the cheapest part.”
RCM:  OK, as a rock photographer you must’ve had your share of sex, cocaine binges, and the bizarre, right?
HD:  I was with the more “gentle” rockers. There weren’t any hookers; there were groupies and stuff.  My group smoked more grass.  For me, grass is like magic photo dust.  It turns my eyes on. The colors became brighter. It accentuated my vision.
RCM:  But certainly there were some hotel room stories? The band America?  And David Cassidy?
HD:  We used to go up to the Caribou Ranch. It was a recording ranch up in the mountains in Colorado. You’d stay in a cabin and there were young girls from Boulder who would come up and be the maids and waitresses and they’d party with all the guys. There was lots of wine; every room had a refrigerator with lots of white wine. There was a lot of drugs, a lot of girls around, and a lot of music. The group would be recording and playing and singing.
RCM:  The Morrison Hotel / Doors story.  I know you’ve told it many times but it’s still good. 
HD:  The Doors called us and said, ‘We want you to do our album cover. I said, “Do you have a title for the album? Do you have an idea of what you want on the cover?” “No.”  In the silence following ‘we don’t have any ideas,’ Ray Manzarek said, “My wife Dorothy and I were driving through Downtown L.A. the other day and we saw this old hotel called Morrison Hotel.”

We got right in the Volkswagen van and drove down and looked at it. Obviously that would make a great cover with them behind the window. We took some pictures that day just with Ray and Jim sitting behind the window. A week later we went down with the group. When we walked in with four or five guys the guy behind the desk said, “no, you can’t shoot in here.  You can’t take pictures until you get permission from the owner. He’s out of town.”
So I had the guys come outside to take pictures in front of the window so they couldn’t stop us. Then the guy left the desk. “Quick, guys–!” and they ran in and got in place.
RCM:  How about the iconic James Taylor Sweet Baby James cover?
HD:   That was kind of an accidental album cover; they all were. His manager Peter Asher called me and said, ‘We need publicity shots. Black and white publicity shots.’ I went to Peter’s house, took a picture of James sitting on the floor playing his guitar.

We had to get outside where there was some light so we went to my friend Cyrus’ place where he had some sheds and barns. I took this picture for publicity and thought it looked so good that I wanted it in color. I wanted to show my friends. This was ’69, it was still early in my career. So I took a couple of color shots, just for me. Somehow I showed them to the manager and they used them for the cover. My job wasn’t to take his album cover, it just turned out. Same with CSN.
RCM:  I read one article that said you’ve photographed 80 album covers, and another which said close to 300.
HD:  200 probably.  I think Gary and I probably did about 80 together, of the actual 12” album covers. And I’m counting CD covers when I say 200.  I took pictures of The Doors at the Hollywood Bowl and 20 years later they did Live at the Hollywood Bowl and used my picture on the cover.
RCM:  And you still are taking photos now.  Digital?

HD – “The digital thing.”  About 6 or 7 years ago, I was saying “I will never go digital.  I am a ‘film guy, totally.’”  And then I saw somebody’s digital camera, I  said “wow you don’t even have to focus.  These are all sharp and you don’t need that light meter anymore,” and I said this is pretty cool.  The other thing is when you shot slides, transparencies, you’d have to give those to the person that hired you, and then there’s no negatives; they would have the originals and they’d lose them and you’d never get them back. So I lost many photos that way.
RCM:  And you were the official Woodstock photographer.  I would imagine that every single shot has extreme historical value.
HD:  Yeah, Woodstock – they’ve pretty much all been used.  I was there two weeks.  As “official photographer” Michael Lang hired me to fly out and shoot the thing and I had to take them all to Life Magazine — the next day right from the photo lab to Life Magazine.  And the guy looked through them all, made several stacks of the couple hundred of the best… and I never got them back.
RCM?  What?

HD:  A couple hundred of my best Woodstock shots. I didn’t have my name stamped on them – I didn’t even have a stamp then.  So Life had all these, and they’ve been lost.  I’ve had people comb through the archives looking and they can’t find them.
RCM: Meanwhile I imagine people are constantly coming to you for your photos for their reissues, live albums, digging up your vintage photos for the internet…
HD: My accidental job now is I’m an archive!  I never expected that.  I never thought, once, in those days “just wait, someday… I’m going to have this entire history of a time and a place..!” – never thought that –  it never entered my mind once!  It’s always in the moment, in the moment.   Then people started saying, “well you must have quite an archive.”  “What? – oh you mean a lot of photos–? yeah I guess I do…”
~*~*~*~*
Henry Diltz’ brand new book of black & white photography Unpainted Faces is available at his website – Morrison Hotel Gallery.
There are still a few limited edition copies of his hugely successful California Dreaming’ book of color photos still available: http://www.genesis-publications.com/
Henry Diltz photos in this article are courtesy of Henry Diltz and Morrison Hotel Gallery, unless otherwise noted.

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