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Falkland Road, Bombay

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Mary Ellen Mark, chronicler of society’s sad underbellies, died last month, aged 75. An ugly world she photographed limps on.

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Altamont and Falkland Roads are just a couple of miles away from one another in downtown Bombay. However, they seemed to belong to different worlds. Magnates, celebrities, and ambassadors live in the upscale residential neighborhood around Altamont Road. Less exulted is the area around Falkland Road, known as Kamathipura, one of the largest red-light districts in the world. Frequented by lower classes since the days of British rule, the area remains a brutal epicenter of abuse, exploitation, and sex trafficking even in independent India. Laws and diktats of the authorities stopped outside the so-called Fuckland’s labyrinthine network of brothels, warrens, and cages.

To this world arrived Mary Ellen Mark in 1968. She would go on to become a humanistic portrayer of the society’s harsher corners — street-gangs, runaway children, psychiatric patients — and the scenes she witnessed in Bombay haunted her and she kept returning to document the district in a book that The New York Times called, “intimate but not bawdy, sad but not damning, and more seductive in its passionate mix of colors than in its offerings of flesh”.

Viewed as an interloping foreigner, she was unwelcome and the reception was downright hostile. She remembered: “Each time met with hostility and aggression. The women threw garbage and water and pinched me. Crowds of men would gather around me. Once a pickpocket took my address book; another time I was hit in the face by a drunken man. Needless to say, I never managed to take very good photographs.” But she persevered and during a visit in October 1978, stayed in the district for two months, befriending prostitutes, pimps, madams, and transvestites alike.

That project, released as Falkland Road: Prostitutes of Bombay, was a haunting chronicle of abject lives. Girls were kidnapped from their families in rural villages. Desperate families who didn’t want female offsprings sold them off to brothels. Pimps preyed on young and attractive beggargirls. Girls as young as thirteen were forced into prostitution, and into cages to prevent them from escaping. Neglect — and worse fates — beckoned children born to prostitutes within the district. Photos, taken in vivid colors in dramatic contrast from Mark’s black-and-white usual, showed filthy mattresses surrounded by filthier walls.

Many others followed Mark’s footsteps to document the district (see a great modern expose here). The area had survived to this day, although many whose lives Mark documented didn’t, as AIDS took its toll in the following decade. Due to increased awareness, international aid organizations were allowed to set up anti-trafficking shelters and children’s homes. There are estimated 20,000 sex workers in Kamathipura today — although down for its dizzying heights (of 50,000) in the 1990s. Now the area is overlooked by gleaming skyscrapers, and the area’s recent redevelopment plans mean Kamathipura’s days might be numbered. However, the unholy network of pimps, madams, and traffickers will simply move somewhere else, with their cages and virgin auctions.

(Most of the photos from the book are on her website here).

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Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

July 2, 2015 at 6:45 am

Kings of Horror

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(Above photo was taken by Terry O’Neill on the set of the 1983 horror comedy, House of the Long Shadows, the only film which co-starred four great master horror actors: Vincent Price, John Carradine, Peter Cushing, and Christopher Lee.)

Christopher Lee, the world’s most interesting man and the last king of horror, died aged 93. 

There was always something rakish about Christopher Lee. His movie career — and late life affectation for death metal — proves it. But Lee’s exciting adventures began when he volunteered to fight for Finland at the beginning of the Second World War. He was soon chosen for elite clandestine outfit called ‘Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare’, more commonly known as Churchill’s Secret Service. His work there is still classified (though the ministry was involved in skirmishes such as an assault that destroyed the German top secret nuclear weapons development facility in Norway) but Lee came out of the war as a highly decorated veteran to live a second life as an acclaimed actor.

For Hammer Horror, a British studio which churned out series of thrillers which luxuriated in camp and melodramatic moments, he portrayed an array of accursed protagonists of Georgian and Victorian imaginations: the Mummy; Frankenstein’s monster; Count Dracula; Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; and Fu Manchu. He was cast as Henry Baskerville against Peter Cushing’s Sherlock Holmes, then as Holmes, and even as Holmes’ cerebral brother Mycroft.

Later, filmmakers remember him whenever they needed to portray men of apocalyptic air and larger-than-life ambitions, real or imagined. Thus he was Pakistan’s tormented founder in Jinnah; a debonair assassin with a third nipple against James Bond; an intergalactic aristocrat in Star Wars; a misguided holy fanatic in Rasputin, the Mad Monk; a powerful wizard corrupted by evil in Lord of The Rings; and an icy, pagan-worshiping leader of a windswept Celtic island in The Wicker Man.

His colorful life intertwined with those of whom he played. As a child, he met Rasputin’s killers. One of his stepcousins was Ian Fleming, who partly modeled James Bond on Lee’s wartime experiences and who hoped Lee would play titular villain in Dr. No. Lee also knew Tolkien, and was the sole member of The Lord of Rings’ cast and crew to have met its writer. In playing Saruman’s death, Lee quipped that he knew how dying from being stabbed in the back sounded like, from his classified work during WWII.

He maintained a productive, prolific life to the end: on his last day of filming Lord of The Rings, Lee was 92.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

June 12, 2015 at 3:38 am

Borneo, 2001.

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DAYAK CHARLES

(contd. from the previous post)

After East Timor gain its independence, Indonesia’s descent into chaos continued; a shocking nadir was reached in 2001, when the Dayaks of the Borneo Island began butchering the Madurese migrants. The tribal war between Madurese and the Dayak began in late 1996, when over 300 people died in ethnic violence in West Kalimantan which lasted for six weeks. Madurese women were beheaded by the Dayaks and their heads were paraded around town. (The ancient Dayak custom claims that bringing home a victim’s head and burying it with their ancestors’ bones will ensure that the victim will be their servant in the afterlife.)

While the re-flaring of tensions only followed after General Soeharto stepped down, his coercive policies were the cause. Madura island, in east Java, is famous in Indonesia for its barren soil and as a place to leave. Soeharto continued — and escalated — the Dutch policies of transmigrating people from more populated Javanese islands to the less populated tribal lands in Irian Jaya and Kalimantan. In latter case, the government granted the Madurese logging rights and allowed them to clear forests for palm oil cultivation, even in the forests that were sacred to the animist Dayaks.

In December 2000, there was a murder in Kereng Pangi, a small village near Sampit. A group of Madurese allegedly tortured and then killed a young Dayak after a gambling brawl. The murderers, the Dayak elders claimed, bribed the police to escape justice. Decades of bitterness at the Madurese control of businesses and markets turned violent as a tribal reprisal by the Dayak followed; atavistic feelings are invoked in this ‘land of head-hunters in a perpetual state of war with one another’, as the Economist wrote. The police, as it had in East Timor, was unwilling to save the persecuted.

The iconic photo was the conflict was taken by Charles Dharapak, an AP journalist. In the photo above, Fabian Charles, a Dayak gang leader, stands in front of two Madurese settlers he said he and his gang killed and beheaded.  The photo made the cover of Time magazine, whose Indonesian distributor refused to distribute it.

(For more on the collapse of plural society in Southeast Asia, read this).

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Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

April 17, 2015 at 5:55 am

Old Timers’ Day, 1977

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That was a historic year in American baseball as Yankees and Dodgers met at the World Series for the first time since 1963, but a more momentous event has occurred a few months earlier. On July 16th, 1977, Duke Snider, Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays, and Mickey Mantle made an appearance together at Old Timer’s day during All-Star Game weekend at Shea Stadium.

As the quartet walked away from the Center Field, an iconic photo was made; the jersey numbers — 4, 5, 24, 7 — were sufficient to convey that this was the group who had staggering 1,964 homeruns among them. A few years later, Terry Cashman, that Balladeer of Baseball, recalled this iconic photo to write his famous song, “Talkin’ Baseball” (itself later immortalized by The Simpsons)

Cashman wrote the song during a bitter baseball strike, harkening back to a different America. That sunnier era for him was 1957, when New York had three great teams in the city — and three of the greatest center fielders in history. That was, according to Gallup, also the happiest year in American history, right amidst the Ike prosperity. Soon Edsel would disastrously debut, Sputnik went up — twin ignominies for American science and industry. That same year, the Giants and the Dodgers moved away to San Francisco and Los Angeles respectively.

Try as he might, Cashman couldn’t find a rhyme for DiMaggio’s name; the star was left out of the song and airbrushed from the record’s picture sleeve (below) — something that had disappointed both the singer and the player. Cashman later wrote, “Cooperstown, The Town Where Baseball Lives” where diMaggio featured prominently as an apology.

[I have no idea who the original photographer is. Any help?]

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Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

October 19, 2014 at 4:34 pm

Heinrich Harrer’s Tibet

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As 65th Anniversary of the Communist Takeover of China approaches, Iconic Photos is looking back at the world it changed.

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In April 1944, Heinrich Harrer escaped a British internment camp in India to begin his 20-month journey across the Himalayas. Only in January 1946 — long after the war that forced the British authorities to detain Austria-born mountaineer (and as it later transpired, a member of the Nazi party) Harrer – he walked into the Tibetan capital at Lhasa, like a starving beggar.

Harrer was to spend seven years in Tibet, later recounted as the eponymous book and movie (above); under the Potala Palace, he built a skating rink, which brought him to the attention of the palace’s inhabitant, the 12-year old Dalai Lama. For the priest king, Harrer built a cinema, running the projector off an old Jeep engine. Later, he was Dalai Lama’s tutor in maths, geography, science, and history.

Harrer was an avid photographer too. As Court Photographer, he had taken over 2,000 negatives, of which a selection was published in 1991 in the album Lost Lhasa. His book was an unparalleled and sole account of nomadic, feudal, and monastic life as lived by the Tibetans well into the 1940s and 50s.

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This life, including the pilgrims’ circuit of Lhasa he documented, was soon to be wiped out by a series of Chinese invasions. Both factions in the Chinese civil war, the Communists and the Kuomintang, had maintained that Tibet was a part of China. At the end of the civil war, the victorious Communists were ready to incorporate Tibet by force.

Two months after the Communist takeover of China, Mao Zedong ordered his army to march into Tibet. Feudal Tibetan theocracy was ill-prepared for a fight and months of frenetic negotiations failed to deliver results. On 23rd May 1951, the Tibetan representatives were forced to sign an agreement which in exchange for nominal self-governance, Tibet agreed to be part of China.

A decade of localized hostilities against the Communist followed; in 1959, the Dalai Lama fled Tibet as the Communists reneged on self-governance promises.

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(More photos here and here).

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

September 12, 2014 at 6:26 am

Hong Kong | Fan Ho

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Anticipating the 65th Anniversary of the Communist Takeover of Mainland China, Iconic Photos look back at the world it unleashed. 

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Under the Japanese rule during the Second World War, Hong Kong’s population sunk below 600,000. This figure was dramatically reversed after the war; as the communist takeover of mainland China began, Hong Kong’s population jumped to 1.6 million. Shanghai, its greatest rival city, was no longer open to foreign capital, and from 1945 to 1949, financiers, merchants and industrialists fled to the British colony from Shanghai, its greatest rival city. Among the escapees was Fan Ho, a photographer who documented the street life in Hong Kong in those tumultuous years following his arrival.

Those were different days. The notorious Dalton-Douthwaite scandal (where two British soldiers murdered a Chinese girl) was just around the corner. Large immigration forced newcomers to be housed in shacks and squatter huts, built on hillsides and in cemeteries. Welfare support was non-existent, and provided only by volunteers and kaifong associations. Drug abuse was rampant; by 1959, there were around 150,000 to 200,000 addicts, an staggering number of a population of 2.8 million. This was the era of Kowloon Walled City and Triads that ruled it, and this was the Hong Kong that stared back at you from Fan Ho’s black-and-white photos. After Fan Ho took a photo, “with a knife in his hand, a pig butcher said he would chop me. He wanted his spirit back.”

Better days too were just around the corner. In 1961 arrived John Cowperthwaite, a Classicist who was to preside over the colony’s finances for the next decade. He kept personal taxes at a maximum of 15 percent, and balanced the budget aggressively. He was an idiosyncratic man, who never released economic statistics because “once the data was published there would be pressure to use them for government intervention in the economy”, but proved an excellent administrator. Under Sir John, a laissez-faire Gladstonian, the colony’s GDP grew at an astonishing average of 13.8 percent in every year — an unprecedented rate in those slower growth days.

(More Photos Here).

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

September 4, 2014 at 3:46 am

The Vivian Maier Lesson

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Undated, New York, NY

This is one of the most fascinating photo-related stories of late.

In 2007, John Maloof, a 26-year-old real estate agent and amateur historian, found 30,000 of photo negatives at a Chicago estate auction. The photos depicted streetscenes in Chicago of the late 1950s and the 1960s, each scene meticulously dated and placed on the back of the photo. The photos had come from a storage unit the photographer had stopped paying rent on.

The photographer was Vivian Maier, a New York girl who moved to Chicago in 1956 to begin working as a nanny for various affluent North Shore families for the next forty years. Her nannying work enabled her to enjoy early morning drives on her moped, along with a Rolleiflex camera.Although Maloof could not locate her, he posted the photos to his blog. A search yielded no results until Maier died in mid 2009, and a brief obituary was printed. She had been in a nursing home.

Retrospectives followed, as did two documentaries: “Finding Vivian Maier” and “The Vivian Maier Mystery”. But a lesson is somewhat lost. Vivian Maier’s photos were lost — and rediscovered fifty years later. They were fascinating — fascinating because they showed a different world and fascinating because they show it in crisp tones of a physical negative.

Currently, nearly everyone — even some of the greatest names in photographic pantheon — takes their photos digitally. They do not last and they will not last.

Firstly, there are hardware issues: I still have photos stored on a Floppy Disk and CDs, but my laptop does not come with drives for them anymore. The time will come when USB drives are not backward compatible anymore (already my external hard drive has issues with an USB 1.0 on work computer).  USB itself might be replaced by a superior technology (as Floppies had been). But an uncomfortable truth is that CDs, DVDs, hard drives they all inevitably fail.

Then, there are software issues. Will the computer of 2064 still recognize raw or jpg formats? The Economist had a great article two years ago. Already, I don’t have a program on my computer to read the earlier ebooks (.lit), and .epubs and .mobis will go that way too. Last week, there was a popular post on Reddit that encapsulated the problem tautly, and encouraged people to start printing photos.

When it comes to photography, printing is not really a solution — prints fade and get destroyed too.  Vivian Maier survived because her photo negatives survived.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

June 5, 2014 at 4:20 am

Abandoned Baby | China

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This blog gets frequently linked from reddit, many of whose users think this photo as ‘the worst photo ever’. For this author, that photo was not even the worst photo ever taken on a hapless child dying on the ground.

The photo above, by Jeff Abelin – of whom I found very little — speaks volumes louder. This photo conjures up a world of medieval fairy tales — of Hansel and Gretel — in late twentieth century China; a world where untold millions are sacrificed at the altar of demographic dividend; a world where certain stretches of the Yangtze River are common sites of infanticide by drowning. Life magazine comments on the photo:

“A group of Americans came upon this abandoned boy on a path in Fuyang and took him to a local hospital, where they were told by a staffer, “You should have left it where it was.” A day later, another baby was found [dead] in the same spot, and the day after that, the first child, suffering from pneumonia and a deformed heart, died anonymously.

“This picture and the accompanying story caused an uproar, as human rights activists placed the blame for a plague of abandonment and infanticide squarely on the government’s One Couple, One Child policy. Baby girls were at greater risk than boys, who might one day be of more use in the fields: Some estimates held that more than 1.5 million girls out of the 13 million children born in China each year, were being abandoned. Though the government countered that parents with “feudal ideas” were causing the problem, it eventually relaxed the One Child policy – a little.”

Life was optimistic and included the photo on ‘100 Photographs That Changed The World’. True, draconian forced abortions and imprisonments were replaced by huge fines for violators of One Child policy, but the photo didn’t change much. One Child policy still persists, some seventeen years after the photo was taken in September 1997. Today, China has 25-40 million fewer baby girls due to selective infanticides.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

April 24, 2014 at 2:49 am

Erwin Blumenfeld

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Excepted from The Economist, Nov 9th 2013:

Erwin Blumenfeld arrived in New York in 1941 with a suitcase, little English and no professional training as a photographer. Aged 44 and undaunted, he went on to reinvent both himself and fashion photography. He created over a hundred start-lingly original magazine covers and countless fashion shots for the slick pages of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue. His images mirrored the energy and excitement of Manhattan in the 1940s and 1950s.

For a Vogue cover from January 1950, Blumenfeld used fierce light to erase a model’s features, leaving only an eye, a mouth and a beauty spot. Another cover, this time to raise money for the Red Cross after the second world war, superimposed a translucent red cross over the blurred figure of a model in a turquoise hat. Blumenfeld’s surrealist image of Adolf Hitler, his face distorted by a skull, covered millions of American propaganda leaflets dropped over Germany in 1942.

Often headless, his nudes appear remote and mysterious, owing to Blumenfeld’s use of mirrors, diaphanous fabrics and solarisation (a darkroom technique that inverts the lights and darks of an image). They reveal the influence of avant-garde photographers such as Man Ray, whose work he saw in Paris in the 1930s. Blumenfeld’s 1937 masterpiece, “Nude Under Wet Silk”, earned him some art-world notoriety when it was published in Verve magazine.

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Blumenfeld’s inventive images earned him fame as “the best-paid photographer in the world”. Yet he chose only four fashion photographs for his book, “My One Hundred Best Photos”, published in 1981 (he died in 1969). He yearned to be taken seriously as an artist, and began experimenting with the medium during his pre-war years in Berlin, Amsterdam and Paris.

Born in 1897 into a bourgeois Jewish family in Berlin, he got a camera for his tenth birthday. Aged 14, he shot a playful self-portrait dressed as the sad clown Pierrot, holding a mirror to his face to create a double image. “I wanted to be a photographer, pure and simple,” he later wrote. His aspirations turned practical after his father’s death in 1913. Blumenfeld worked first for a Berlin garment manufacturer, then drove an ambulance in the first world war, yet he floundered in any job that did not involve film. After getting married in 1921, he set up a handbag shop in Amsterdam, and struggled to get by. He took advantage of a disused darkroom to experiment with portraits and nudes.

Upon moving to Paris in 1936 he set up a studio with the help of an art dealer, Walter Feilchenfeldt. A magazine cover for Votre Beauté and an exhibition at the Galerie Billiet prompted a studio visit from Cecil Beaton, an English photographer, who swiftly secured Blumenfeld a contract with French Vogue. “His merit as an artist lies in the fact he is incapable of compromise,” Beaton noted. One of Blumenfeld’s best-known black-and-white spreads, published in Vogue in 1939, features a model perched on the edge of the Eiffel Tower, her flimsy dress fluttering in the breeze.

When war broke out in September that year, Blumenfeld was interned in a series of camps, including Le Vernet. He finally escaped with his family to New York two years later. Studios replete with staff and equipment awaited him, along with a contract with Harper’s Bazaar. His New York years were devoted to self-confident glamour of America and he helped define the way America saw itself—a remarkable feat for a man who described himself as “un-American for ever”.

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Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

March 20, 2014 at 4:09 am

Last Public Execution by Guillotine

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There are some people still alive today who were present at the last public execution in France. Actor Christopher Lee, for instance. In the early morning of 17 June 1939, Eugène Weidmann bowed down before the blade of the guillotine, the last person to do so publicly.

Weidmann was the last person to be executed before a crowd in France. He had been convicted of multiple kidnappings and murders, including that of a young American socialite. His trial was a sensation in that tense summer of 1939; the Frankfurt-born Weidmann was quickly dubbed “Teutonic Vampire” by the tabloids. His execution outside the prison Saint-Pierre in Versailles was a noisy affair.

In the days following the execution, the press was especially indignant at the way the crowd had behaved. Paris-Soir denounced the crowd as“disgusting”, “unruly”, “jostling, clamoring, whistling.” Among the sins the lofty paper found unforgivable was the crowd “devouring sandwiches”. More shockingly for the authorities, the unruly crowd delayed the execution beyond the usual twilight hour of dawn, enabling clear photographs — and one short film! — to be taken. The government regretted that public executions which were intended to have a “moralizing effect” now produced “practically the opposite results.” President LeBrun signed an order to hold executions only behind closed doors.

By this time, France was already an anomaly; the proud tradition of macabre spectacle dating back millennia  was fast becoming forbidden in the West.  Most German states banned public executions in the 1850s. England carried out her last public execution — that of the Fenian agitator Michael Barrett — in 1868, and most of her dominions followed. From then on, momentum was with ban of public executions. Liberal Denmark banned public executions in 1882, and abolished the death penalty altogether in 1933. In 1936, Kentucky became the last American state to ban public executions. 

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

January 31, 2014 at 3:48 am

Posted in Culture

A Storm at La Jument

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At the edge of Iroise Sea stands a lighthouse. The waters off the coast of Brittany are among the most dangerous in Europe, and it claimed over thirty ships between 1888 and 1904, when construction began of the lighthouse. It took seven years to finish because of the harsh storms.

On 21st December 1989, Jean Guichard traveled to the lighthouse in a helicopter when such a storm broke out. Guichard was a celebrated photographer of maritime heritage around France and decided to take photos of the lighthouse during the storm. Inside, the lighthouse keeper Théodore Malgorn was waiting to be rescued, and thought Guichard’s helicopter was his rescue helicopter.

He hurried downstairs to open the door — a moment which coincided with a giant wave enveloping the lighthouse. Malgorn rushed back inside and managed to close the door, and Guichard took a series of seven photos that became instantly famous. They sold over one million copies in poster print and earned him the World Press Photo award.

Two years later, automation came to Breton lighthouses; La Jument’s keeper was retired 1991.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

December 17, 2013 at 3:19 am

Posted in Culture

Tagged with , ,

Lewis Morley (1925 – 2013)

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Lewis Morley, one half of an iconic spread, is dead, aged 88.

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It is often said that the pill and Lady Chatterley’s Love made the permissive society. Alas, the sexual revolution also got its fair share of help from indiscretions of John Profumo, a Tory government minister, for no matter what unflappable judges declared over the previous decade, the Profumo Affair proved otherwise with its steamy reveals about the lives of stiff-upper-lipped establishment types.

While it was a more forgiving age where even the most public of individuals — from Edward VIII to John Kennedy to Labour’s own leader Hugh Gaitskell — could rely on the press to overlook their indiscretions, it was Profumo’s misfortune to become entangled with a call girl named Christine Keeler, who might be also seeing a Russian spy. Revealed alongside were salacious tales of demimondaine brothels, lavish parties, two-way mirrors, and rumors about a naked, masked, and illustrious male “host” whose identity was never revealed. It was a watershed moment for both the British politics and British political reporting.

Ms. Keeler posed famously for Lewis Morley, a famed chronicler of the Swinging Sixties. Morley cleared the studio and turned his back so that Keeler could undress, suggesting she sit astride the chair so the back would shield her. As the 30-minute shoot which burnt up 120 rolls of film was coming to end, Morley turned away, only to notice Keeler “in a perfect position”. The most amours photo was literally the last shot

Morley did not have fond memories of the day. “I never found her sexy,” he said. “She reminded me too much of Vera Lynn!” And as he came to resent its overshadowing of his other work, he called it “that fucking Keeler shot” and parodied it by photographing himself in the same pose with a millstone around his neck. He however signed the chair — a thinly-masked Arne Jacobsen copy — and sold it to the V&A while the National Portrait Gallery bought all original photos.

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Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

September 16, 2013 at 12:49 pm

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