Journey to the Bridge

The Story of “The Bridge at Hoover Dam” Photo Essay

By Jamey Stillings Back to


It is at the intersections of nature and the hand of man that the greatest visual, philosophical, environmental and political energy exists. At these intersections, we discover something important about ourselves and our relationship to the world.

Early in the first quarter of 2009, the studio phone went silent; no portfolio requests, estimates, or assignments. Nothing. I have been through a few recessions and each has presented a new and unique set of challenges. The Great Recession of 2009 would be no different.

I decided immediately to capitalize on the slow period, turn it to my advantage creatively, if not financially. “Let’s go on a photo road trip!” I said to photographer Mike Sakas, my good friend and first assistant. Anything we found interesting was fair game. Thus it was one evening in March 2009 that we drove over Hoover Dam and encountered the bridge under construction starting its aerial journey across the Black Canyon of the Colorado River. I had not previously known about the bridge and the Hoover Dam Bypass. Our immediate decision to spend another day and evening photographing at the dam and bridge has resulted in one of the fullest and richest creative experiences of my career.

The evolving bridge sparked my imagination. Watching the bridge’s construction, especially at night, was both inspiring and captivating. I needed to find a way to return to photograph the bridge.But how could I gain access? Headed by the Federal Highway Administration, (FHWA) responsible parties for the Hoover Dam Bypass Project included several federal agencies, the Arizona and Nevada departments of transportation and several private contractors. Construction had been ongoing for years. No doubt, all their systems were firmly in place, including policies and procedures for photography.

I concluded my best bet was to secure an editorial assignment and felt intuitively The New York Times Magazine would be an excellent fit. They might appreciate the photographic aesthetic emerging in the first few images and grant me the freedom to pursue this vision. With the help of Sharpe+Associates, my reps, we approached the magazine. As luck would have it, the pending architectural issue would be on national infrastructure. With a small guarantee for first editorial rights and a letter of assignment, I made my plans.

Jamey Stillings, Hoover Dam, photo essay

I learned the policies, procedures and limitations of photographing the bridge. Most of my ground-based access came through proper permitting with the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) at Hoover Dam. More limited entry within the construction alignment came by carefully following established procedures and protocol with the Federal Highway Administration. Six days of photography in two trips culminated with a dawn helicopter flight over and around the bridge.

The New York Times Magazine was very thin in June 2009. Advertising pages were down with a corresponding decrease in editorial content. However, the newly redesigned magazine included one full-page aerial image of the bridge as “Endpaper: Bridge to Somewhere,” along with nine photos in their online edition. The coverage was well received. Initial relationships and procedures were established. In mid-June, I made the decision to pursue the bridge as a long-term personal project, eschewing the editorial support of other publications in exchange for complete creative freedom.

I wanted to create three separate bodies of work: a documentary essay in the midst of construction, a “studio on location” portrait series, and the continued observation of the bridge within the landscape of Hoover Dam and Black Canyon. I was not granted access for a documentary essay on the bridge’s construction. Citing safety and proprietary concerns, this option was taken off the table. For over a year, I actively pursued permission to create the portrait series, even driving to Denver in a January snowstorm to present a formal proposal to the Federal Highway Administration. But the complexity and politics of successfully completing a federal/state/private infrastructure project ultimately prevented my access to make these portraits. In order to maintain the limited access I did have to the construction alignment, I needed to follow policies, procedures and protocol meticulously. The ultimate benefit of being road-blocked on two of three creative directions was that I became free to pursue the landscape body of work with even more dedication and passion.

Jamey Stillings, Hoover Dam, photo essay
Aerial View, June 30, 2009. Morning clouds on the eastern horizon.

The bridge, Black Canyon and Hoover Dam became a three-dimensional chessboard of sorts. We poured over satellite photos to better understand the terrain’s complexities. With the cooperation of the BOR, Mike Sakas and I scrambled up and down ridges and cliffs to scout prospective viewpoints in the summer’s 122o heat. We charted the sun’s path, thought strategically about important stages of construction and the best points of view. From this research a matrix evolved throughout the project to develop the photo essay by continually adding interest, variety and insight.

A construction site active 24/7 and lit at night had a surreal quality. The key was to photograph the bridge in a visually evocative and compelling way while respecting personal aesthetic sensibilities. Constant technical care and attention to detail was necessary for success. Anything could prevent a photograph from reaching its potential.

Step one was to eliminate potential vibration during exposures. I needed to worry about wind, movement on scaffolding and the special requirements of long telephoto lenses. I obtained Gitzo’s most robust carbon fiber tripod and ball head.

Second, I needed to ensure accurate focus in low light scenarios. I switched to manual focusing using Canon’s Live View mode at maximum magnification.

Third, I tracked my optimal primary exposure both aesthetically and using the camera’s histogram. Then I bracketed exposures to allow for greater dynamic range during imaging work on the computer. In an ideal world for nighttime photography, I would have utilized a four or five exposure bracket, but because the camera would only allow for three exposures automatically, I chose the expeditious route. My exposure bracketing varied from +/- 2 to +/- 1 stop(s) from my primary exposure.

Fourth, I butted up against the optical limitations of some lenses. Lenses that are fine for everyday assignment work, especially where corner sharpness is not an issue, suddenly met their match when used for the task of documenting the bridge. I started testing lenses more critically and found myself moving back to prime fixed focal length lenses. During this time, Zeiss began to issue its DSLR manual focus lenses for the Canon mount. I tested several. Ultimately, a group of Canon and Zeiss lenses became my “prime” allies during the project.

Finally came the challenges of quality aerial photography. It is easy to photograph in the daytime with high shutter speeds and lenses stopped down, quite another task to shoot at dawn and dusk. I used a single Kenyon gyro for all aerial work, but even this sometimes met its match when shooting f2, 1/125 second, ISO 3200 out the open door of the helicopter. Many lenses that are amazing for portraits are not spectacular when focused at infinity. Many lenses that shine when stopped down 2-3 stops are less than stellar when shot wide open. Finding the very best optics for aerial photography is still a work in progress. One definite change is that I will integrate a double gyro system for future aerial work.

Jamey Stillings, Hoover Dam, photo essay
Colorado River Bridge, September.

Between June 2009 and January 2011, I made more than a dozen trips to the bridge, racking up almost 40 days and nights of photography in the process. The photo essay that developed from my initial encounter allowed me to meld photographic and aesthetic sensibilities with a reawakened sense of childhood curiosity and awe. The bridge as subject has been creatively and technically challenging, dynamic and transitory. Over the two years of the project, as the bridge evolved, each visit required fresh perspectives and visual inquiry. The opportunity to spend extended time with a single subject brought a depth of visual understanding both to the approach and the resulting body of work. It has been and continues to be a great experience.

The Bridge at Hoover Dam is now an exhibition, which I intend to travel nationally and internationally for several years. To date, the work has been exhibited at the Las Vegas Springs Preserve, Etherton Gallery in Tucson, Arizona and photo-eye Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The Phoenix Art Museum has scheduled the first museum exhibition for August through November 2011. I have been honored to see the work published in numerous editorial publications. And I am actively working to create the best book publishing opportunity. Stay tuned.

How a structure and its creation are documented greatly impacts how it is remembered in history. Construction of the bridge downstream from Hoover Dam was unique both for its historical importance, by its proximity to the dam, and for its technical achievement, bridging the Black Canyon over the Colorado River with the longest concrete arch span in the western hemisphere.

The bridge challenges us to examine the juncture of nature and technology on a scale that is both grand and human. The overarching goals of The Bridge at Hoover Dam are to acknowledge the collective talents and labors of those who built the bridge and to place the bridge within the historical and aesthetic context of Hoover Dam and the American West. Without the hard work and talents of hundreds who built the bridge, these photographs would not exist.

Product Resources: Camera: Canon 5D Mark II; Canon Lenses: 17-40mm f/4L USM, 24-70mm f/2.8L USM, 24mm f/1.4L USM, 35mm f/1.4L USM, 50mm f/1.2L USM, 70-200mm f/2.8L USM, 85mm f/1.2L USM, 300mm f/4L IS USM, 400mm f/4L IS USM; Zeiss Lenses: Distagon T 18mm f/3.5, Makro-Planar 50mm f/2, Makro-Planar 100mm f/2; Tripod: Gitzo GT5561, GT3541 XLS Head; Computer: Apple MacBook Pro, Apple Mac Pro 2; Software: Adobe Photoshop CS5, Adobe Lightroom 3; Other: Kenyon KS-6 Gyro Stabilizer Kit, Tamrac Big Wheels Rolling Backpack-LP8, Tamrac Aero Speed Pack 75.

About the Author

Jamey Stillings
Jamey Stillings’ work as a photographer spans fine art, documentary and advertising. A passionate interest in people, world cultures, social and environmental issues are the guiding forces in his photography and life. Recent clients include The New York Times Magazine, Toyota, GE Global, and First Republic Bank. He was awarded the Director’s Choice Award, First Place, 2010, by CENTER for, “The Bridge at Hoover Dam.” See and