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'Fiat Lux,' Ansel Adams and the University of California

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“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.


Representing one of the largest projects of Ansel Adams’ career, the Fiat Lux archive contains over 6,700 negatives and 600 fine prints, all of which the UC Regents own. After Yosemite, the University of California appears to be Adams’ most documented subject. The Fiat Lux collection is currently being exhibited for the first time at UC Berkeley in The Bancroft Library Gallery. Fiat Lux Redux: Ansel Adams and Clark Kerr is on view September 27, 2012 through February 28, 2013 and features 50 original photographs selected from 605 signed Ansel Adams prints in Bancroft’s collection. The photographs offer a rarely seen look at the evolution of the renowned University of California system through the eyes of a master photographer best known for his iconic California landscapes. On view also are related archival materials about the controversial Kerr himself and the development of his ideas and ideals.

Ansel Adams, Laboratory Research, Langley Porter Neuropsychiatric Institute, San Francisco Medical Center, UC San Francisco, August 1964.

Ansel Adams, Dr. Wheat and students in the large animal clinic, UC Davis, 1966.

Clark Kerr asked Ansel Adams to take photographs of the future — to project, as much as possible, the next one hundred years. We are nearly half way into the century he was asked to imagine, and therefore the present is an opportune moment to consider the extraordinary vision that Fiat Lux represents both of the University and the State of California to which it belongs.

An integral part of the Fiat Lux Redux exhibition is a documentary film project called “Take Five,” a series of short videos based on interviews with UC Berkeley faculty, staff, alumni, students, and neighbors. Filmmaker Kwame Braun and I asked interviewees to select and discuss five images from the collection that speak to them personally. Through these videos, we meet the people of the University of California today, as they reflect on past visions and future prospects for California’s public higher education.

Among those featured in the project is writer Michael Pollen, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and professor in Berkeley’s School of Journalism. In his “Take Five” video, Pollan reflects on how everything America knew about farming had to be re-invented in California given the challenges of its climate and environment. The University of California played a crucial role in that reinvention. How does one grow rice in a desert? The UC helped California figure out how to do that, says Pollan. Also palpable in the Fiat Lux archive, for Pollan, is how these photographs capture a “moment of confidence on the part of the University and on the part of the society about public education.” Pollan sees in Fiat Lux the University “extending out its tendrils to the landscape. . . There’s a great sense of ‘anything is possible’ and ‘we can do it here.’ And now that we’re in such an era of straightened circumstances . . . there’s a sense of lowered horizon when I look at this.”

While for agricultural and food writer Pollan the Fiat Lux archive is a lens onto California agriculture and the public good, Berkeley artist Anne Walsh sees the images as an unexpected aesthetic vision from America’s preeminent nature photographer. In her “Take Five” video, Walsh draws attention to Adams’ unexpected aesthetic choices. She asks, “What does a nature photographer do when he has to go inside and photograph people and buildings and machines?” A visual artist who works with video, performance, sound, photography and text, Walsh explores how Ansel Adams, the preeminent photographer of the natural world, worked indoors as he staged photographs of the University of California in the 1960s. She finds in these images unexpected resonances with Film Noir.

Ansel Adams, Strawberry Fields, Plastic Covers for Fumigation, UC Agricultural Extension, Salinas Valley, March 1966.

Ansel Adams, UC Riverside, Bell Tower from Humanities Building, View North, 1966.

The Fiat Lux archive is perhaps most notable for the variety of responses it generates and the discussions that these photographs provoke. The Fiat Lux Redux exhibition invites visitors to view and respond to these images and to express their visions of public higher education for the 21st Century.

Fiat Lux Redux: Ansel Adams and Clark Kerr is on view September 27, 2012 through February 28, 2013 at Bancroft Library on the U.C. Berkeley campus. Admission to the exhibition is free. For more information visit bancroft.berkeley.edu.


All photos courtesy The Regents of the University of California, by permission of The Bancroft Library.

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