4.7 / Review

Fiat Lux Redux: Ansel Adams and Clark Kerr

By Sarah Hotchkiss January 16, 2013

Thumbnail: Ansel Adams. Laboratory Research, Langley Porter Neuropsychiatric Institute, San Francisco Medical Center, UC San Francisco, August 1964, 1964; gelatin silver print. Courtesy of the Regents of the University of California.

My first exposure to the Fiat Lux project came in a roundabout way. With his monumental project The Last Pictures (2012), the artist Trevor Paglen made photographic history by sending a miniaturized collection of one hundred black-and-white images into orbit on the back of a communications satellite. The Last Pictures will remain in space, affixed to the obsolete satellite, for as long as our sun exists. Included in the collection is a 1966 Ansel Adams photograph of a University of California (UC), Santa Barbara professor pointing at a microscopic image via a closed-circuit television system. One of thousands Adams shot for the University of California’s Fiat Lux project, it depicts advanced classroom technology while imparting no concrete information about its contents. The mystery surrounding the photograph was part of its appeal for Paglen, along with its role in a project akin to his own undertaking.

Foreshadowing Paglen’s enterprise, Fiat Lux was a 1964 photographic commission charged with imagining through the lens of the present the next hundred years of the University of California. Clark Kerr, then-President of the university, selected Ansel Adams and his frequent collaborator Nancy Newhall to fulfill this goal. Three years later, after visiting every campus and research outpost, the pair delivered 605 fine art prints, over 6,700 negatives, and an impressive book filled with sumptuous photographs and Newhall’s deeply researched text.

The time-capsule element of Adams’s and Paglen’s projects is a curious lens through which to view history. Both collections were meant to summarize the past and create projections into the future—or at least to fashion images capable of being understood in the future, highlighting the most notable of present-day accomplishments. The Last Picture and Fiat Lux were both shaped by years of conversations, consultations, archival research, and aesthetic decisions, but while Paglin included some of his own photographs in his collection, Adams produced all the Fiat Lux images himself, providing a singular view of the university’s future. Forty-five years after the publication of Fiat Lux, the world it depicts appears naïve and painfully idealistic in the face of the UC system’s recent financial and organizational woes. At the same time, the sense of optimism that Adams captured is infectious.

Fiat Lux Redux, on view in UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, presents a small selection of the images from Fiat Lux as an ongoing investigation into the university’s photographic representation. Among the many questions surrounding the exhibition is the relevance of the project today. Removed as we are from Adams’s depiction of the UC network, we still inhabit Kerr’s “next hundred years.” In projecting our own hopes and dreams dramatically into the future, as Paglen has done in The Last Pictures, can we more clearly ascertain the steps toward what might appear to be impossible goals?

Ansel Adams. Televised Instruction, Edward L. Triplett, April, 1966, 1966; gelatin silver print. Courtesy of the Regents of the University of California.
Ansel Adams. University Librarian, University of California, Santa Cruz, November, 1966, 1966; gelatin silver print. Courtesy of the Regents of the University of California.

The culmination of the original Fiat Lux publication was overshadowed by the 1967 dismissal of Kerr, a symptom of rising conservatism within the Board of Regents in response to the campus protests of the previous years. In contrast to this volatile moment in California history, Adams’s images are placid and almost sublime. The photographer created this majestic portrait of the UC system as it was rapidly expanding, yet he did so without capturing much of what is generally associated with the university experience: classes in session, campus life, and spontaneous conversation. The images in Fiat Lux Redux are stiff and orchestrated, even more so for the dramatic lighting and high-contrast crispness of the prints. Adams was under contractual obligation to emphasize the UC schools as a single entity, a warm and sensitive institution that performs outstanding public service to the people of California. Strange, then, that his images are so devoid of people.

The university’s role as a repository of knowledge is demonstrated by such images as University Librarian, 1966 (1966), captured at UC Santa Cruz. The vast warehouse of books is completely unpopulated save for the lone librarian, more of a gatekeeper than a welcoming figure. The institution’s role in public life is represented by images of farming mechanisms, laboratory machinery, and scientific gizmos, but the lives of its students, faculty, and staff are largely absent. In Laboratory Research (1964), a zombie-like woman sits dwarfed by a complicated apparatus that measures her brainwaves.

In addition to two vitrines of biographical and historical material charting the lives of those involved in the project, the exhibition features a series of short videos produced by Catherine Cole and Kwame Braun. Current Berkeley faculty, staff, and students from across disciplines were asked to select five photographs from the Fiat Lux publication; in the videos they offer a range of readings and perspectives on the surrounding show. A frequent refrain among them is Adams’s apparent lack of criticality and his glaring omissions—minorities and evidence of the university’s nuclear research are the most obvious.

Fiat Lux Redux is intended for a UC Berkeley audience. A reissue of the book was given to each incoming student and every member of the faculty at the beginning of the 2012 school year. Many of the issues the exhibition raises are specific to the University of California in the present moment: the fiscal crisis, talk of privatization, and the threat of disassembling the campuses. The moment of growth and excitement that Fiat Lux captured contrasts with the current mood of apprehension and disappointment, as demonstrated by some of the more emotional voices captured on video.1

Instead of dwelling on false predictions from the past, Fiat Lux Redux invites its current audience to begin to think about the future in more creative terms. As Catherine Cole, the exhibition's curator, noted in a recent article on the roots of the Fiat Lux project and its contemporary significance, "In 2009, forty-six years after the Adams/Newhall commission, the UC Regents launched a 'Commission on the Future.' In its Final Report issued in November 2010, the Commission ventured the courageous assertion that 'the future cannot be avoided.'"2 How would we wish to be depicted another forty-five years into the future, let alone one hundred years from now? Instead of avoiding long-term planning and becoming enmeshed in the tiny details of present-day life, Fiat Lux Redux encourages viewers to dream impossibly our own version of events, free from contractual stipulations.


Fiat Lux Redux is on view at the Bancroft Gallery, on the UC Berkeley campus, through February 28, 2013.



CORRECTION: The review originally misidentified Paglen as the author of the summation on the "Commission on the Future." This version, updated January 24, 2013, includes the original quotation from Catherine M. Cole's February 2012 article, "Picturing Our Future." Additionally, the review did not initially include mention of Cole as the curator of the exhibition. She is a Professor of Theater, Dance & Performance Studies at UC Berkeley.


  1.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZzuHMXdScMA&feature=youtu.be
  2. Catherine M. Cole, "Picturing our Future," February 2012, The Doreen P. Townsend Center for the Humanities, http://townsendcenter.berkeley.edu/publications/picturing-our-future, accessed January 2013.

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