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In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams

By Anne Pautler

Published Jan 1, 2014 8:00 AM

Decades ago, the legendary photographer trained his camera's eye on the University of California campuses and took hundreds of shots of UCLA. Much has changed since then — and much has not.

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Ansel Adams preparing to take a photo.

Fifty years ago, a bearded man with a Hasselblad stood on UCLA’s North Campus, his camera pointed at the new sculpture garden and the unfinished arts building. Born in San Francisco and famous for his dramatic images of Yosemite, Ansel Adams was the natural choice for “Fiat Lux,” an ambitious project to chronicle the University of California system in photos.

He didn’t stay at UCLA very long. “I found that working in a certain campus, in four or five days I was through for the time. I just couldn't ‘see’ anymore,” Adams told an interviewer. Instead, he “pogo-sticked” (his words) all over the state for four years.

In the end, Adams cataloged more than 200 negatives of UCLA dated between 1964 and 1967, with the bulk of the work in fall 1966. Most of the time he worked alone, relying on natural light and spending a lot of time on hillsides and tops of buildings.

California native Kevin Cooley also likes to work solo and takes rooftops in stride. He was fascinated to see architectural shots by Adams, instead of the more familiar nature photos. And Cooley enjoyed searching for Adams’ vantage points. All over campus he found people eager to help — intrigued by Adams’ images and interested to see how much the surroundings had changed.

Today, the buildings Adams chose to shoot may seem an odd selection. But he visited the campus in a time of phenomenal growth: During the four years of “Fiat Lux,” enrollment grew from about 20,000 to almost 27,000. So Adams focused on the new buildings sprouting everywhere, especially on North Campus, where Chancellor Franklin Murphy had just begun the outdoor sculpture collection that bears his name.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Moonrise, UCLA / Adams 1966 / Cooley 2013
The moon was an important element in some of Adams’ most iconic shots: Moonrise, Hernandez, N.M. (1941) and Moon and Half Dome, Yosemite National Park, Calif. (1960). But in the four years he worked on “Fiat Lux,” the only moonrise Adams shot was this view looking east from the residence halls. Cooley shot from the top of Drake Stadium — not finished until 1969, but directly below one of the original residence halls, Sproul Hall. These days the nights are brighter, with intramural fields, walkways and Janss Steps outlined in lights.

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Photos by Ansel Adams (top) and Kevin Cooley (bottom)

Bunche Hall / Adams 1966 / Cooley 2013
The “Social Sciences Building,” as Adams knew it, wasn't named for Ralph Bunche until 1969. Adams shot from the top of the building we now know as Broad Art Center. So did Cooley, only to find that the geometric precision of Adams’ composition has been hopelessly blurred by time and trees. Even on the brickwork plaza, change is evident: Richard Serra’s monumental T.E.U.C.L.A. now dominates the space, while Jacques Lipchitz' Le Chant des Voyelles, looking like an upraised fist in the foreground of Adams’ photo, has been relocated from its 1963 location.

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Photos by Ansel Adams (left) and Kevin Cooley (right)

Pauley Pavilion / Adams 1966 / Cooley 2013
Adams shot from the roof of Engineering I — demolished in 2011. So Cooley found a vantage point on the bridge between Engineering IV and V. His 2013 shot shows the distinctive roof trusses of Pauley, reminiscent of a basketball net, as well as the new concourse that wraps the building since its 2010-2012 renovation. Beyond Pauley Pavilion is The Hill, the undergraduate residential community — by far more densely populated, both by buildings and by students, than it was when Adams came to UCLA. (In the foreground of Cooley’s shot is the construction for the Luskin Conference and Guest Center.)

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Photos by Ansel Adams (top) and Kevin Cooley (bottom)

Broad Art Center / Adams 1966 / Cooley 2013
What Adams knew as “the new arts building” was officially named Dickson Art Center. Damaged by the 1994 Northridge earthquake, it was transformed into today’s Broad Art Center from 2003 to 2006. Architects Richard Meier & Partners reused the concrete structure but added the distinctive screen of horizontal blades and roofs that has changed the face of the building. These elements are functional as well as decorative: They filter the sunlight that pours into the renovated building. Both Adams and Cooley shot from the roof of Bunche Hall.

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Photos by Ansel Adams (left) and Kevin Cooley (right)

Knudsen Hall / Adams 1966 / Cooley 2013
Knudsen Hall has changed very little since Adams shot it, at least outwardly. The repeated curves of the roofline — echoing the Roman arches of Royce Hall — no longer seem as ultra-modern as they did when the building opened in 1963. Another difference — invisible from this angle — is the addition of the new Physics and Astronomy Building, connected to Knudsen Hall on multiple levels. Cooley chose to shoot at dusk, with lights visible in the stairwell and in scattered offices.

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Photos by Ansel Adams (top) and Kevin Cooley (bottom)