Ansel Adams’ photography collection aims to capture incoming students’ attention

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Fiat Lux Collection/Courtesy

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A body of work created in the 1960s by renowned photographer Ansel Adams is returning to the public eye and challenging incoming UC Berkeley students to reimagine the future of the public institution they will be attending this fall.

Adams’ collection of photographs will be part of this year’s On the Same Page — a program that aims to foster intellectual engagement between incoming students and faculty members around a common theme or issue.

Published in 1967 as Fiat Lux, the photography collection was commissioned by then-UC President Clark Kerr in commemoration of the university’s 100th anniversary. UC Press replicated a facsimile edition of the book, and each incoming student will receive a copy this summer at their Cal Student Orientation.

Adams photographed the life and landscapes of the university over a four-year period, while touring its various campuses, research stations and agricultural outposts.

“The Fiat Lux images and book often produce emotional reactions, and not all of these are positive,” said the program’s website. “Some contemporary observers react to the images quite negatively, finding them disturbing, dystopian, monumental and uncritical of their modernist and masculinist sensibilities.”

Catherine Cole, a campus professor of theater, dance and performance studies and the main proposer of this year’s program theme, said the goal is to get students talking about the future of higher education in California, acknowledging that within the context of the current financial crisis the Adams’ images might evoke a wide range of emotions.

“(The photographs) come from a moment of real clarity and growth,” Cole said. “(The current financial crisis) is not just about money, (or) about issues of policing … (but rather) a larger question of institutional vision.”

In order to accomplish this, the program has created an interactive website that encourages students and faculty members to creatively reuse Adams’ photographs and interact with the art in their own way. Described as a “blended or hybrid learning environment,” the website features interviews with faculty members and videos created by students — which Cole hopes will inspire students to reimagine the future of the UC system.

An exhibit of the photographs will also be held at the Bancroft Library starting in September and will be open to the public, Cole said.

“We have become so myopically fixated on crisis management,  that not only do we fail to imagine our future in expansive terms, but we also seem unable to apprehend the legacy of our past — a past that is still very much with us, as the thousands of Fiat Lux images attest,” Cole wrote in a recent article that appeared on the Townsend Center’s website.

Adams and his longtime collaborator, Nancy Newhall, were commissioned to create a book that would portray the future of the institution for posterity. Now, 50 years later, students of the program are being asked if Adams and Newhall got it right.

Each year the program gathers together undergraduate students to participate in discussions and seminars regarding the given theme of any year. This year, students will also be able to partake in public events with faculty members to discuss Fiat Lux and will be given the opportunity to submit their renditions of Adams’ photographs in a campus contest, according to the program’s website.