Immortal Images

A photo exhibit is history-in-the-making with the Hoover Dam bypass bridge

Photo by Jamey StillingsColorado River Bridge construction, May 2009.

Photographer Jamey Stillings first saw the bridge by chance. It was spring 2009, and he had been scouting locations for a photo project on solar energy. Stillings was instantly captivated, and it’s easy to see why: Nearly 2,000 feet long, the Mike O’Callaghan-Pat Tillman Bridge soars almost 900 feet above the Colorado River, a mere 1,500 feet from the Hoover Dam.

The bridge tapped into his own fascination with “technology and man-altered landscapes.” As soon as he saw it, he wanted to be in on creating the historical record—in shaping how future generations remembered the bridge.

But recording history was no easy feat. It required that Stillings make numerous trips to the bridge from his home in Santa Fe, N.M.—he worked more than 35 days and nights on the project. He had to pay permitting fees by the hour to be on the site, and sometimes he was there for hours, waiting for the right shot. Capturing spectacular aerial shots meant renting a helicopter at $500 an hour.

Stillings produced more than 16,000 exposures during his eight trips to the bridge (some of which were displayed in Vegas Seven’s April 22 issue). His new exhibit at the Las Vegas Springs Preserve, The Bridge at Hoover Dam, displays 37 images from all angles. In the aerial shots, the bridge and the dam become small toys you could scarcely imagine existing in the real world. Up close, the bridge, along with its support columns and cables and girders, is a brute—infrastructure as shock and awe. Stillings’ lucid photographs capture both the strength and the delicate poetry of the structure. You absolutely must see them in person.

Some shots are particularly arresting. “Arizona Arch Segment” was taken at dusk; the construction lights wink like stars, draping the bridge in a silver, almost angelic glow. “Bridge at Nevada Hairpin” is a wide-angle shot of the bridge as it anchors into the rocks of the Black Canyon; it’s as dramatic and beautiful as a landscape painting.

Tightly controlled access from any number of private contractors and public agencies meant Stillings was unable to get close enough to shoot portraits of the workers, which would have given the project an extra dimension of intimacy. Yearning to see the men’s faces, you instead must settle for seeing them only as worker ants. “Ten Climbing” is an incredible, vertiginous shot of ironworkers scaling up the arch. But perhaps the most striking photo is “On the Deck,” a closeup of the arch at the top of its crest and the roadway above, upon which walks a lone worker with pail in hand. The juxtaposition of giant erector set and tiny man is all the more powerful because the worker appears so nonchalant, just another day at the office, like walking across the Colorado River on a thin ribbon of concrete suspended a thousand feet above the ground is nothing.

The Hoover Dam, meanwhile, has never looked better. Stillings says both structures really shine from the air, where you can see “the formal relationship between the completed arch of the bridge and the arch of the dam. And at the same time … the massiveness and the complexity of the bridge, and the counterpoint, from the air, this tiny little arch, it looks so delicate.”

So how does he get these shots? Sure, Stillings has a fantastic Canon DSLR, a bag full of lenses (he used a dozen on this project) and a tripod. But his technique is mostly a matter of paying careful attention to light, to extreme contrast ranges, to composition. Oh, and wind. And moving objects.

“Even though I was dealing with what one would consider an inanimate, immobile object, to take really good images at the right time of day requires attention to detail through the whole process, from shooting to the imaging work at the end to the printing.”

He hopes to take the exhibit on the road when it finishes its run at the Springs Preserve in January—and then to try to publish a book. But bringing his images to Las Vegas first was especially important. “I wanted to share with the people involved with the bridge and the communities of Las Vegas and Southern Nevada,” he says. “That had been a goal I put out at the first of the year.”

Stillings is thankfully undeterred at the prospect of all those amateur shooters out there trying to capture their piece of the bridge. “What I found early on is there was something in the subject of the bridge that was allowing me to pull together three decades of experience into something where I could take my particular skill set and apply it very successfully to this subject,” he says. “It felt like a fit.”