How do you capture the sprawling empire that is the University of California System in an image?
If you are former UC President Clark Kerr, whose 1960 Master Plan of Higher Education and utopian vision caused an uproarious expansion in fact and in philosophy that ultimately led to his controversial dismissal in 1967, you don't.
Instead, you commission legendary photographer Ansel Adams and less-recognized but widely published writer Nancy Newhall to create a 192-page picture book, "Fiat Lux."
Forty-four years after the glory and ambition of California's upper educational system leapt from the book's provocative, black-and-white photographs, a frustrated, soon-to-be-curator Professor Catherine Cole suffered a haunting question that propelled her search in the university's history: When did we know who we were?
"I read Kerr's plan, then I read about Kerr," Cole recalls, during the Sept. 27 debut of "Fiat Lux Redux," the exhibit she has curated and opened in the Bancroft Library Gallery on the UC Berkeley campus. "I found we had 605 signed prints and 6,700 negatives in the archives."
Marveling at the collection's scope and hoping to blaze a cool-headed trail through the violence, tumult and financial chaos she saw in today's reactive higher education climate, Cole convinced the Bancroft's initially skeptical decision-makers to support her dream.
The buzz created by "Fiat Lux Redux" spread like a virus. UC's "On the Same Page" for incoming students -- a program providing a book, film or theme meant to inspire and integrate them into the student body -- latched onto it.
Related activities sprouted: "Take Five," an ongoing series of short films offering a wide variety of voices reflecting on five, self-selected exhibit images; (upcoming) lectures providing scientific, historical and theatrical perspectives; and perhaps the most attractive to a digital media generation, "Fiat Lux Remix."
Online, Adams' images can be downloaded, then Photoshopped, staged, mashed-up with videos or collaged into new photographs to allow today's faculty, staff, alumni and students to expose their personal visions of the university.
"I'm hoping a robust, palpable picture of a research university will emerge," Cole said. "I want discourse, conversations; not just in the gallery, but in the hallways and out on the streets."
The exhibit, crafted to evoke Kerr's then-centennial embrace of the entire university system, begins simply, with the cover of a 25-cent Time magazine depicting the president and published on Oct. 17, 1960.
Cameras similar to those Adams used, a sheet film Calumet Monorail and a roll film Hasselblad 500, are positioned in front of original letters sent between Kerr, Adam and Newhall. One, in which Adams describes the commission as "a most pleasing trauma," adds an intimate aspect to the display.
The exhibit's 50 images remove any notion that this is a "let's all worship the university's past" presentation. Instead, the impression is of relentless innovation. Through science, architecture, agriculture, commerce, industry and always, people and culture, the photographs express forward momentum.
Those who appreciate the art of photography will relish the masterful way Adams explores light -- in a UCLA eye exam photo, where a spooky eye glows between anonymous fingertips, or a fog-filled airport runway laboratory in which shafts of light slice, then evaporate into the gloom.
Supporting books, pamphlets and exhibition notes tell the dark story of Kerr's dismissal. By allowing non-campus communist activists to come speak, he attracted attention from the FBI and other powerful groups.
Snapshots and headlines show the truth: the cycle of protest and oppression rolled through the time of Kerr's presidency, as it continues to do in the 21st century.
Which makes this exhibit and Cole's invitation to the public all the more urgent. "Fiat Lux Redux" might not represent every individual's vision, but it does open the conversation to shout out an answer to the ultimate question, Who are we and who might we become?