The Curious Case of the 1970s Yearbooks

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1972 yearbook page
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By Karrigan Monk '18

The turbulent ‘60s had come to a close, but the nation, including UNC Asheville, was still riding the wave of all the changes from the decade. The cultural struggle between old and new, rebellion and tradition, is illustrated--strangely enough--in the curious case of two 1970s UNC Asheville yearbooks. With the art students involved in the annual yearbooks planning “a revolutionary act” and the Student Government Association more than willing to fight back in favor of their traditional yearbook, the first few years of the ‘70s proved to be an interesting time at UNC Asheville.

“The story of that pair of yearbooks is, at its heart, a tale of revolt,” said Mark Wilson, an art student at UNC Asheville in 1971. “A revolutionary act, if you will, that was carried out not by political activists with freak-power agendas, but by artists. Or art students, at least.”

S. Tucker Cooke, an art professor and faculty advisor for the yearbook, had reached out to Wilson to be part of the Summit’s publication. For his first year with the Summit, Wilson and the rest of the staff decided they wanted to do a turn-of-the-century style photo album. The project was to be complete with costumes appropriate for the times and using similar styles of photography.A photo of science faculty in the 1971 "Summit."

“It was a massive undertaking but we the yearbook staff succeeded in convincing all the faculty and all the administration and all the clubs and organizations to dress up in bowlers and bloomers and sit for portraits which we then crafted into said album,” Wilson said. “Even the back-of-the-book advertisers played along. From our perspective it was a huge success and seemed to be reasonably well-received by the university community. Everyone seemed to enjoy the good fun.”

From Vintage to Avant-Garde

When the time came to create the 1972 yearbook, Cooke asked Wilson to be the editor of that year’s book. This would be the start of an even more interesting turn of events for the Summit.

Wilson said he felt prepared for the job and recruited the people he thought would do the best work: his fellow art students.

“We went at it with the gusto and bravado that only third-year art students can display,” Wilson said. “It became a department-wide group project with a not-very-well articulated mission of countering the polite charm of the previous year with loud, bold visual racket.”

An unconventional student photo from the 1972 "Summit." The “visual racket” Wilson mentions refers to the rather unconventional-looking yearbook the staff produced. Instead of having traditional aspects of a yearbook — photos organized by class or department, group shots of clubs and teams, highlights of the year — the 1972 Summit staff decided to turn these traditions on their heads — sometimes quite literally.

Where traditional yearbooks are filled with student headshots lined up in rows on page after page, only a few of these photos were actually printed in the 1972 yearbook, the staff opting instead to rotate the photos of some students and print them going horizontally across the page.

Instead of photos of campus events or clubs, most of the pages of the yearbook consisted of photo manipulations and collages. Though this was very intentional, Wilson did, to some degree, understand that some people may not be receptive to the style.

“Other apologies must be offered to other people who will be understandably disappointed in their representations in this book,” Wilson hand wrote in an editor’s note to the yearbook. “My only excuse was a temporary cynical pessimism. You may hold me personally and entirely responsible for a yearbook that was at best poorly executed.”

The 1972 yearbook was meant to be different and to shock people and Wilson said the staff was happy with what they made.

“We produced a visually rollicking, messy little ‘manifesto,’” Wilson said. “We were quite proud of what our band of social misfits had produced, of the artistic statement we had made.”

The rest of the campus community, however, did not share this sentiment.

Repercussions from the Revolution

Ray Gasperson, SGA president for the school year, launched a full investigation of the yearbook. According to the Report to the Senate on Investigation of Summit, Gasperson “charged this committee with thoroughly investigating the Summit, organizationally and economically.”

Within the investigation, several members of the Summit staff, including Wilson, Cooke and Tony Bradley, the student editor of the faculty photo pages, were invited to testify on the importance of the yearbook.

Looking back on the experience, Bradley said he thought the yearbook was indicative of the times.

“I attended UNCA from 1969 to 1972. It is always difficult to look at the past without the monster of nostalgia raising its head,” Bradley said. “The times were both innocent and torn with the Vietnam war always present. I met a group of diverse and interesting people including professors who weren’t too much older than students.”

Though the SGA seemed to think the yearbook was a direct insult to the university, Bradley said there was never any animosity to the school, just irreverence.

Wilson agreed, though he does note that at times the staff was rather juvenile in the way they handled things.

“We weren’t altogether successful in many ways,” Wilson said. “For example, we grew tired of trying to get uncooperative faculty groups together for photo shoots and just dropped the same picture with the same random stagger page after page, each captioned with the name of the department who hadn’t shown up. We abandoned any preconceptions about the purpose of a yearbook.”

This abandonment was something Gasperson and his administration took specific issue with. The report suggested that the purpose of a yearbook was to capture the school year. With Wilson’s version of the Summit, SGA did not feel as if the year was captured accurately.

“It was roundly and universally panned,” Wilson said. “Students accustomed as they were in those days to raising a stink about their grievances complained loudly, feeling that their fees had been grossly misspent. I heard — though never confirmed — that some number of the books had actually been burned in a dormitory courtyard.”

A poll conducted by the investigation team showed that, out of 323 students surveyed, 32 called for the abolition of the yearbook all together. However, over half of the students wanted aA photo the art faculty, and the noticeably missing physics faculty in the 1972 "Summit." yearbook the next year, but only if it returned to its traditional state.

“What I will absolutely stand by is that for a couple of years the UNCA art department commandeered a tired, conservative enterprise and made it wholly, uncompromisingly their own,” Wilson said. “I’ll wager no one has dared repeat the experiment since.”

All copies of the Summit—including from 1971 and 1972—are available online through the University Archives.