“If you did an environmental, ecological history of the University [of California], and you were able to visualize its impact on the landscape of California, it would be profound — far beyond this landscape in Berkeley, or that landscape in Davis, or in Riverside. It’s a good part of the whole state,” says author Michael Pollan in a documentary film that is part of a new exhibition entitled Fiat Lux Redux: Ansel Adams and Clark Kerr currently on view at The Bancroft Library Gallery on the University of California, Berkeley campus.
In 1964 Clark Kerr, who was then President of the University of California, commissioned two artists to create a portrait of the entire UC system: photographer Ansel Adams and writer Nancy Newhall. Together they worked for over three years, travelling the length and breadth of state, visiting the nine UC campuses and also its myriad research stations, observatories, natural reserves and agricultural extensions. The result was a book called Fiat Lux published in 1967 for the University of California’s centennial the following year. Also in 1967, just as the book was going into production, the UC Board of Regents under the presidency of Governor Ronald Reagan dramatically fired Clark Kerr. In such a tumultuous climate, the University became apprehensive about even publishing the book, according to Ansel Adams, who said, “everybody at the University was scared to print it.” Their fear, presumably, was the possibility of incurring the wrath of the newly elected California governor since Reagan rose to power on a platform of “cleaning up the mess at Berkeley” —- a mess he believed was caused by the permissiveness of Kerr in the face of student protests.
Ansel Adams, Campus Park, The Commons, and Library Administration Building, UC Irvine, April 1967.
Ansel Adams, Addition to the Health Science Building, UC Los Angeles, November 1966.
While the Fiat Lux project was in many ways eclipsed by historic events, it represents an extraordinary time capsule, massive in scale and breathtaking scope. Most notable is its optimistic vision of vast, expansive horizons —- a perspective that seems quite remote today, a time of massive disinvestment in public higher education, rapidly increasing tuition, and skyrocketing educational debt, which now exceeds consumer debt nationally.