'The Book' Ansel Adams Fiat Lux

Commissioned for the observance of the one hundredth anniversary of the establishment of the University of California in 1968, Fiat Lux by Ansel Adams and Nancy Newhall celebrated the event with a perceptive, artistic statement about the University itself, and about its reach into the lives and surroundings of the people it serves. This book was especially designed by Adams, Newhall and bookmaker Adrian Wilson to be experienced at a particular scale and size. Because this original 1967 edition is now out of print, On the Same Page, in collaboration with UC Press, has created a 2012 facsimile edition for all incoming students and current faculty, a reprint that approximates the original in terms of size and overall layout. We believe that even in the digital age, there is still a place for the material object of the book, especially a book that was so carefully and thoughtfully designed.

For wider circulation and access to the text among students, faculty, staff and the larger public as well as for the visually impaired, we have provided a machine-readable PDF of Fiat Lux. Available Here. CalNet authentication required

This republication in both material and digital form is an invitation to reconsider our inheritance and to re-imagine our institution's future.

Visual Literacy

"Perhaps the old literacy of words is dying and a new literacy of images is being born. Perhaps the printed page will disappear and even our records be kept in images and sounds." -Nancy Newhall, Aperture, 19521

The Fiat Lux book exemplified a genre of photography book that Nancy Newhall is credited with inventing: the "spread book" in which photographs and words are carefully calibrated and matched, with picture size and placement shifting in relationship to words and overall design. The effect of such a book, as Ansel Adams described in a letter to a UC administrator, was that each spread within the book must "read well, look well and 'feel' well. The best ideas in the world must be tailored to the total design. This is quite different from a book with continuous text, and pictures introduced on an occasional basis."1 Newhall and Adams, who had worked together on several previous books, aimed with Fiat Lux to produce not a documentary photographic book about the university but rather an expressive, poetic, and personal interpretation. "This is a portrait by an artist rather than an essay by a photojournalist," said one observer.3

The overall thrust of Fiat Lux emphasized the relationship of the University to the people of California, as is evident in the book's opening line: "To look at the University of California is to look at California itself--its land, its people, and their problems--into the civilization rushing towards us from the future. There are few aspects of California . . . with which the University is not concerned." They favored resonant images, rather than spectacular ones; evocative images over those tied to comprehensiveness or making documentary statements. Words and photos were chosen and presented in a way meant to produce a "profound emotional experience," in the words of Newhall.4

Today, the Fiat Lux images and book often produce emotional reactions, and not all of these are positive. Some contemporary observers react to the images quite negatively, finding them disturbing, dystopian, monumental, and uncritical of their modernist and masculinist sensibilities. Others are puzzled by the relative absence of students in the photographs, an absence that was also noted at the time of the book's publication in 1967 when J.R.K. Kantor of The Bancroft Library said, "Fiat Lux is much better than I expected. In fact, it is really impressive in its telling the story of the University's accomplishments as a research institution -- this is good public relations, for it shows the public what it has gotten for what it has paid. I'm afraid, though, that Adams and Mrs. Newhall have managed to overlook the entire student-faculty reality, but perhaps this is not to their taste."5

The question of why there are so few students is an interesting one, and perhaps one answer might be found by reading Clark Kerr's Godkin lectures delivered at Harvard in 1963, the very year he commissioned the Fiat Lux project.6 These lectures also presented what many found to be an unsettling portrait of the undergraduate college experience, especially within the new model of the research university that Kerr termed the "multiversity." Berkeley's Free Speech Movement reinterpreted Kerr's "knowledge industry" as a "knowledge factory," and Mario Savio called upon students to throw their bodies upon the gears of the machine. Interestingly, machines loom large in Adams' rendering of Kerr's University of California from half a century ago. Machines often upstage, entrap and even replace researchers altogether.

While Fiat Lux was, for Adams, a work for hire, can we still see in these images a critical sensibility expressed by the artist? What attitude do these photographs and the text and layout in the book have towards the university? What assumptions about knowledge or learning are represented here? The UC was known in this period for its involvement in mass public education, big agriculture and defense. How are these aspects represented in Fiat Lux? How might your own portrait of the future of the University of California differ from what Adams and Newhall have presented? We are only half way into the century they were asked to imagine. Should we, at this moment, imagine our future differently? Are there features of the expansive vision for a public university system represented in this archive--one in which the UC appears, according to Clark Kerr, as the "Yosemite of higher education"--that we believe ought to be preserved and conserved?7 What is your picture of the future? Adams and Newhall dedicated their project to those who will make the future. That's us!


1 Quoted in Nancy Newhall: A Literacy of Images, foreword by Deborah Klochko (San Diego: Museum of Photographic Arts, 2008), 4.
2 Letter from Ansel Adams to Verne Stadtman, January 31, 1967, The Bancroft Library, CU 5.9, box 17, file 1.
3 Memo from Verne Stadtman to UC Vice President Sorensen, February 10, 1967, The Bancroft Library, CU 5.9, box 17, file 3.
4 Letter from Nancy Newhall to Verne Stadtman, March 29, 1967, The Bancroft Library, CU 5.9, box 17, file 3.
5 Memo from J.R.K. Kanto, University Archives, The Bancroft Library, to Verne Stadtman, December 15, 1967, The Bancroft Library, CU 5.9, box 17, file 4.
6 These lectures were later published as The Uses of the University, Fifth Edition, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001 (originally published 1963).
7 Quoted in Melinda Wortz, Ansel Adams: Fiat Lux, The Premier Exhibition of Photographs of the University of California, Irvine: University of California, 1990, p. 11.