Human Ambition

Jamey Stillings' amazing photos of the Hoover Dam-bypass bridge bring a new audience into Etherton Gallery

One afternoon last week, an elderly man and his wife climbed the long stairs up to Etherton Gallery.

When they arrived at the second-floor reception area, the man paused to catch his breath. Then he asked, expectantly, "Is this where the bridge photos are?"

The answer was yes. The man—a retired engineer, perhaps?—lit up when he entered the big gallery and saw Jamey Stillings' dazzling photos of the new Hoover Dam-bypass bridge.

Stillings' pictures are in Con-struct: The New West, a don't-miss show closing next week that also features photos by Michael P. Berman and Martin Stupich.

Officially known as the Mike O'Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge, the elegant arched edifice that Stillings photographed opened in October, a quarter-mile southwest of the Depression-era Hoover Dam. By any measure, the new concrete-steel span, stretching over the Colorado River from Arizona to Nevada, is an engineering wonder.

Built to divert overly heavy traffic away from the Hoover's narrow dam-top roadway, the new bridge soars 900 feet above the river. It sails out from the basalt cliffs of Black Canyon and rests on an arch that is 1,060 feet long.

Miraculously, that beautiful arch was constructed in mid-air. The workers began on both sides of the river and separately built the two halves of the curve. A web of temporary cables held them aloft as they grew. In August 2009, the arcs met in the middle.

Stillings, an independent Santa Fe photographer, chronicled the last year and a half of the bridge's construction, including the painstaking completion of the arch, documenting both the skill of the workers and the wizardry of the engineers. Work had begun in February 2005, and when Stillings happened on the site in March 2009, the monumental arch—in pieces—was already dangling high in the sky. Seeing the edifice rising up out of the wilderness, Stillings jumped out of his car and began photographing.

"I've had a long-standing interest in the man-altered landscape, in places where man and nature intersect, and this was that on steroids," Stillings told Smithsonian magazine, which ran his photos in the December 2010 issue.

An assignment from The New York Times Magazine helped Stillings win access, and he made more than 30 visits, capturing the structure in every light and at all angles, from below, from inside, from above. More than once, he chartered a helicopter to shoot bird's-eye views, and came back with dizzying images of the arch slithering across the landscape like a giant snake, or pylons seeming to explode upward. His photos also pay homage to nature, to the vast landscape that the manmade structure interrupts.

His large-format color work, shot digitally and inkjet-printed, has been featured in publications from Parade to Sunset to The New York Times Magazine; they're expected to be collected into a book. At Etherton, bridge- and technology-lovers—like the eager gentleman of last week—have flocked to the gallery for the first time.

Beyond their value as a document of early-21st-century engineering, Stillings' photographs are just plain beautiful. The symmetrically perfect "Upstream View, May 21, 2009" echoes Ansel Adams' 1941 shot of the Hoover Dam, then just 5 years old. Photographed from close to the same vantage point, Stillings' version has the diagonal walls of Black Canyon converging on the horizon. The not-yet-completed arch traces white lines across the deep-blue sky. In the distance stands the sunlit Hoover Dam.

"Nevada Arch Segment, April 29, 2009" pictures a section of the arch, still more than a year from completion, lunging upward into a pale-blue sky. The red-orange cliffs below fade to ultramarine in the background. Stillings' colors, by the way, are lovely—pale tints here, velvety darks there.

"Evening Shift Change, October 20, 2009" is the only one of the 18 Etherton images that portrays some of the project's 1,200 construction workers. (One man, Sherman Jones, lost his life in an accident on the job.) In the picture, a cable car carrying the workers sails upward against a sky tinted the orange of the setting sun. The laborers are silhouetted in black; the first electric lights of the evening are already twinkling on the cables.

Crews worked around the clock, and Stillings relishes the dramatic views afforded by the artificial light of nighttime. "Nevada View, September 9, 2010" shows the whole of the lit-up edifice, shining silver in the darkness. Stillings must have been in the helicopter for this one. The arch curves below like a rollercoaster, and glittering towers jut upward into the night sky.

For another dramatic after-dark shot, "Bridge at Nevada Hairpin, July 28, 2010," the photographer went below, to a viewpoint well under the bridge. The arch segment shoots diagonally upward across the picture plane. Illuminated by bright-orange lamps, the monumental pillars holding up the roadway look like something left over from the Roman Empire.

Interestingly, fellow photog Martin Stupich works similar territory, taking photos of large-scale human works in the landscape—dams, piers, bridges—but he's especially interested in their decline and fall.

In "Bridge Over Canal, Venice, California," 1974, a clumsy concrete structure is tumbling into ruins. "Old Roosevelt Dam (Now Replaced), Arizona," 1988, is an arresting view of the early-20th-century landmark; one year after Stupich made this image, the dam was altered unrecognizably. Later, it was stripped of its landmark status.

Stupich photographed these older gelatin silver prints in soft black and white, which heightens their elegiac quality. (Like his deteriorating subjects, his photos, too, have undergone alteration: They've been digitally captured and converted into inkjet prints.)

Hanging on the wall opposite from the Colorado River bridge photos, Stupich's work turns into a sober riposte to Stillings' images. Understandably, Stillings photographed the stunning new Colorado River dam with unbridled enthusiasm. Stupich's work, by contrast, is a thoughtful critique of human ambition. The large-scale projects he photographs are costly, and damaging. They can be fleeting, but their impact on the fragile Western landscape is permanent.

"Mill Ruins With Shadow at American Flat, Nevada, 1980" is a sweeping portrait of a decaying structure in the desert, its stained pillars as evocative of lost glory as the crumbling Roman Coliseum. A long shadow in the foreground even echoes the pillars of the Roman Forum. Sic transit gloria mundi.

In the small gallery in the front, Michael P. Berman has a lovely suite of gelatin silver prints on aluminum, partially colored with pigment and acrylic, and varnished or waxed. These tiny images, heavily hand-worked, stand in counterpoint to the giant scale of the industrial projects pictured in the large gallery.

Berman mostly photographs nature—desert plants, rocks and untouched vistas. But even in these quiet works, the hand of man intrudes. A wall forces a snake to crawl up on concrete; a shattered car windshield litters the desert sand.

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