“One could easily criticize the vision expressed by Ansel Adams and Nancy Newhall in Fiat Lux (and by UC President Clark Kerr, who hired them) as romantic, magisterial, monumental, idealized, modernist, masculine, Anglo-centric and utopian,” wrote Catherine Cole in February, “succumbing to many of the delusions and pathologies inherent in such epic, utopian projects.”
That sort of response — not uncommon with Adams, best-known for his iconic, starkly formalistic images of California landscapes — is fine with Cole, a UC Berkeley professor of theater, dance and performance studies. Adams and Newhall’s 192-page effort to capture what Kerr termed “the prospective view of the university” on the eve of its 1968 centennial, she hopes, will spark a much-needed conversation about where the UC system is headed — and where it should be headed — in 2012, nearly a half-century later.
“The idea,” says Cole, “really comes from the first page of the book,” which features an image of Charter Day 1964 at the Greek Theatre and reads, “Dedicated to those who will make the future.”
“I love that statement,” she adds, “because what it says is the future has to be made. Sometimes we’ve been told that we just have to put up with the future, that it can’t be avoided. But actually it has to be made, and we have to make it.”
Fiat Lux was published in 1967, by which time Kerr’s own future as UC president had been cut short by a Board of Regents that included Gov. Ronald Reagan, who, along with FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, considered him too friendly to student “subversives.” (To student activists, of course, he was the embodiment of creeping corporatism.) The book skirts the turmoil and demographic changes that marked the era, striving instead to convey what Adams and Newhall, in their introduction, called “the excitement of seeing so many plans, hopes and ideas materializing” in the name of public education.
Cole believes 21st-century uncertainty about the UC system — in contrast to the seemingly boundless optimism found in the 1960s volume — demands a fresh effort to “picture the future” by a broad spectrum of the university community. That conviction, she says, was the spark for a rolling discussion that began with Adams’ images, but has acquired a life of its own. On the Same Page now encompasses more than a semester’s worth of Fiat Lux-related activities, including Thursday’s opening of “Fiat Lux Redux: Ansel Adams and Clark Kerr,” an exhibition that will remain on display at the Bancroft Library Gallery through February.
Given the state’s ongoing disinvestment in UC, she asks, “What makes us a public institution? I think we don’t know. And I think we’re highly unlikely to see reinvestment until we can say what makes us public.”
Which is where Fiat Lux — “Let There Be Light,” UC’s official motto — comes in.
‘Half Dome doesn’t move’
Specially reprinted copies of the book were given this summer to all incoming students and every Berkeley faculty member as the centerpiece of On the Same Page, which each year creates a common focus for new College of Letters and Science students. For 2012, the program was expanded to all incoming freshmen and transfer students, who will be discussing the work — and, in some cases, actively manipulating the images — in courses ranging from writing and photography to legal studies and chemistry. Fiat Lux will also play a key role in more than a dozen freshman seminars.There’s even an art-practice class, “Fiat Lunch,” aimed at cultivating projects for “Fiat Lux Remix,” which invites students, staff and faculty to download digital images and create their own video reflections on Berkeley then and now. The work will be eligible for gift cards in amounts ranging from $100 for monthly winners to $1,000 for grand-prize winners.
A digital version of the 1967 volume, which included 170 photos, is available on the project’s website. In addition to the 605 fine prints Adams left to the Bancroft Library, the California Museum of Photography at UC Riverside houses more than 6,000 of his negatives for the project. Some 1,700 scans, albeit at fairly low resolutions, are viewable via the museum’s searchable database.
And for those who want to view Adams’ originals, there’s the upcoming exhibit of 50 prints from the Bancroft’s collection, plus archival materials — a letter from Adams to Kerr about the project, Hasselblad and Calumet cameras like those Adams used — and a section devoted to sides of campus life left out of the book, including the Free Speech Movement and Kerr’s 1967 dismissal. (A display case includes a photo of the regents with Kerr, Reagan and H.R. Haldeman, who cemented his reputation later as a top aide to President Richard Nixon.)
“Without Catherine this project would not exist,” said Anthony Cascardi, dean of arts and humanities, at a kickoff event last week at Stanley Hall. “I truly cannot think of another On the Same Page project that has been more focused on the University of California, on Berkeley, on where we are, on where we have been and on where we might be going.”
Besides pitching Adams’ photos to deans in the College of Letters and Science, Cole served as lead curator for the Bancroft exhibit and, with filmmaker and Berkeley instructor Kwame Braun, made a series of short films in which faculty, staff, alumni and students each respond to five images they’ve chosen from the collection. (Others are invited to add their own contributions.) The series, “Take Five,” will be shown as part of the Bancroft exhibit, and can be viewed online as well.
“This is such a moment of confidence on the part of the university, and on the part of the society, about public education,” says author Michael Pollan, a professor in the Graduate School of Journalism, in one filmed interview. “Now that we’re in such an era of straitened circumstances, there’s a sense of lowered horizons when I look at this that I thought was kind of sad.”
In another “Take Five,” Leigh Raiford, an associate professor of African American studies and a scholar of race and photography, regards Adams’ “staged” and “static” images as “part of the crucible that imagined white-male mastery over all it surveyed,” and sees a very different, more vital campus than the one in the book.
“My experience is face-to-face contact with students, having people in my office, the conversations in hallways, trying to navigate Sproul Plaza at noon on any given weekday,” she adds. “Half Dome doesn’t move. But people are moving, and ideas are moving.”
Cole, from the beginning, hoped that Adams’ photographs would prompt a campuswide conversation about the university’s future direction. “It just kind of morphed,” she explains, “into all these different platforms.”
“Fiat Lux Redux: Ansel Adams and Clark Kerr” will be at the Bancroft Library Gallery from Thursday, Sept. 27, through February. An opening reception will be held at the gallery on Thursday beginning at 5 p.m.
For information about other events in the coming weeks and months — including talks, panel discussions, a play reading, a dance concert and a mashup — visit the Fiat Lux website.