The Bridge at Hoover Dam

Photographs by Jamey Stillings
Nazraeli Press, 2011

Reviewed by Ellen Wallenstein

Issue 35

Simply put, this book documents the construction of an arch bridge (The Mike O’Callaghan – Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge) that links Arizona and Nevada, built between two mountains over the Colorado River, south of the Hoover Dam. Not so simply put is the power and the beauty of the photographs.

Stillings began shooting this project on a serendipitous road trip to the Mojave Desert in a time of economic downturn. Stopping to admire the beauty of the Colorado River below the Hoover Dam, he turned around to see the beginnings of the construction of this new bridge. Enthralled, he began a new undertaking. Over a period of two years (and much red tape over permits and permissions) Stillings made sixteen trips to the bridge, for a total of 39 days - which challenged, tested and ultimately rewarded his vision. His persistence paid off in this elegant publication.

Those interested in studying photographic history might remember the magnificence of early large glass-plate negatives of the American West (think Watkins and Jackson). Or the very first cover of Life Magazine featuring Margaret Bourke-White’s photographs of the Fort Peck Dam in Montana, to which Stillings’ images should be compared.

Do not let anyone tell you differently: Size Matters. Especially when it comes to landscape photography and the problems of depicting space and scale in two dimensions. ”The Bridge At Hoover Dam” measures 17” x 13” x .75” closed, opening to several spectacular full-bleed double-page spreads. (Warning: the size of these photographs may cause vertigo.) The photographs are edited and sequenced with great precision, in chronological order. Horizontal images cross the gutter while verticals are placed singly on the recto or in pairs. Seen here are the materials, equipment and labor of a huge construction site amid the vast beauty of our “purple mountains majesties” in a most elegant light from various viewpoints. As the construction work continues, the two sides of the bridge start to extend across the chasm like a giant concrete and steel version of Michelangelo’s hands on the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling.

Many of these photographs look like paintings, especially those taken at night: long exposures augmented by construction lights. The bridge seen from below, with a loneliness that brings to mind Edward Hopper; another view lit with golden light disappears into a Bosch-like mountain. Close-ups become Abstract; aerial shots look like Romantic paintings. We notice the difference between the stubborn rock of the mountain and the enforced concrete of the bridge spans; or the delicate shine of a group of tilted transmission towers in the dark.

Other mediums are evoked by these images - cave painting, science fiction, films by Fellini and Spielberg. There are surreal assemblages of giant Erector Sets, tiny human figures climbing like insects, and tremendous columns of concrete and steel against a midnight-blue sky. A most favorite photo (though the least three-dimensional) was taken at sunset during the evening shift change: a cage of tiny silhouetted men in hardhats, backlit with an orange glow, like puppets in a circus tent tethered to a pulley above. Magical.

Stillings states that “the overarching goals of [this] photographic essay...are to acknowledge the collective talents and labors of those who built the bridge and to place the bridge within the historical context of Hoover Dam and the American West.” These goals are met with an intelligent eye, a keen mind, and technical mastery. His photographs capture the immensity of both the construction project and the landscape, with the scale of the human figure in its midst. They are simply stunning.

Buy the book here.

Ellen Wallenstein is a New York City based photographer and photography professor.
To view more of Ellen's writing and photography, please visit her website and blog