When Jamey Stillings first saw the bridge being built across the Colorado River, he was compelled to take up his camera. With an assignment letter from the New York Times Magazine to help gain access, Stillings has approached the bridge within the landscape like a three-dimensional chess game. Once complete, the Hoover Dam Bypass will form the longest concrete arch span in North America, and these images will firmly place this mammoth project within a historical context of the American West.
Project: The Bridge at Hoover Dam, a personal project to photograph construction of the bridge downstream from Hoover Dam.
All images in this article © Jamey Stillings.
ASMP: How long have you been in business?
JS: Since 1983.
ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?
JS: Since 1984. Forest McMullen and I helped start the ASMP Western New York Chapter.
ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?
JS: My academic background is documentary and fine art. My commercial work ranges from portraiture to conceptual work for advertising, corporate and editorial clients. Here’s a quote from my bio/resume: “My work as a photographer spans fine art, documentary work and advertising. A passionate interest in people, world cultures, social and environmental issues are guiding forces in my photography and life. I approach personal and commissioned work with similar sensitivities: to celebrate the human spirit, seek magic moments of light and expression, and create a sense of balance and clarity within each image. I strive to make photos with subtle associations that respect viewers’ sensitivities and their ability to comprehend the abstract. For 28 years, I have traveled and worked throughout the world for a wide range of national and international clients while continuing to pursue personal projects.”
ASMP: Please describe the processes and techniques central to the making of this work.
JS: Throughout the course of my career, I have shot most film formats from 8x10 to 35mm. Since 2003, I gradually evolved to shoot mostly digital capture. I prefer to do my own post-production imaging work. This is where I bring the vision that I tried to impart at the shoot into final form. The Bridge at Hoover Dam project has been shot entirely with digital capture.
ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable piece of equipment?
JS: My intuition.
ASMP: What is unique about your style/approach or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers?
JS: Unique is an interesting word, especially in a world where I love and respect the work of so many other photographers. I try to bring the totality of my experience as a photographer and a human being to all of my work. A unifying approach to my imagery is to simplify and distill each photo to its essence.
ASMP: When and how did you first hear of the Bridge at the Hoover Dam project and how far along was the construction when you took your first pictures in March 2009?
JS: I first encountered the bridge being built downstream from Hoover Dam in March 2009, on a photo road trip during a “slow” time. The arch segments were beginning to move out across the Black Canyon. They formed a striking visual metaphor, which I immediately found compelling.
ASMP: Please describe the overall scope of your photography and your working methods, in terms of preliminary research, time spent scouting and shooting, images made, pre- and post-production and so on.
JS: Originally, I pursued three lines of photographic inquiry: the bridge within the landscape of Hoover Dam, Black Canyon and the Colorado River; a series of “studio on location” portraits; and a working documentary of the bridge’s construction in the heart of the action. I was vetoed on the working documentary and ultimately road-blocked on the portrait series; however the silver lining was the chance to work more intensely within the realm of the bridge in the landscape.
I contacted the New York Times Magazine, as I thought they might appreciate the bridge, as subject, and as a means to gain initial access. They gave me a letter of assignment. Research established three modes of access: the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR/Hoover Dam), the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA Project Manager), and aerial work (an experienced helicopter pilot). We did several rounds of scouting to determine the potential of different points of view.
I have approached the bridge, and its evolution within Black Canyon, like a three-dimensional chess game. I start with an analysis of where the sun will be at sunrise, sunset and during the day. Then I think about the particular stage of the bridge’s construction and try to conceive of angles, which will best portray this evolution. Additionally, I am trying to stretch visually and creatively with each new round of work. By the end of July 2010, I will have completed about thirty days and nights of shooting, with about another week to go when the bridge is completed. I do all editing in Lightroom and complete all imaging work in PhotoShop.
ASMP: What aspects of the bridge construction project have most captured your attention.
JS: I am amazed by the technology of successfully building a bridge high across a canyon. The intersection of nature and man is compelling. As I mention in my project statement: “The bridge challenges us to examine the juncture of nature and technology on a scale that is both grand and human.”
ASMP: Please tell us about access and permissions to photograph. Did you require special access in order to do your first shoot? If not, at what point did you seek official access and what were the channels you went through?
JS: My first shoot in March 2009 was done from public access vantage points. Paperwork, permitting and fees kept me from interesting potential angles. As I started the project in earnest with my letter of assignment from the New York Times Magazine, I researched and learned the proper channels for permitting and access. Most of the ground-based photography has been permitted through Hoover Dam/Bureau of Reclamation. I pay a permit fee and then pay for a “chaperone” while photographing in all non-public access areas. Additional viewpoints fall within the control of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). My contact for all FHWA permissions has been the Project Manager and I have followed specific procedures, as per his direction, to obtain the desired access. Several times requests have been turned down when he deemed it unsafe or an interference with normal workflow. Aerial work has been contracted with a local helicopter pilot who has experience with photo and video shoots. We notify the Hoover Dam Police prior to our shoot, tell them what we will be doing and give them our tail number.
ASMP: Are there government and/or corporate rules or regulations that you must abide by in order to document the bridge construction, and what organizations administer those rules?
JS: Most photography has been from Bureau of Reclamation land. I follow their established guidelines that come with permitting photography. I request specific locations, which I want to scout or from which I wish to shoot. The majority of requests have been approved. Additional photography completed on land controlled by the FHWA goes through the Project Manager for the Hoover Bypass Project directly. He evaluates my requests based on a number of factors, some of which I know and others I don’t. Private contractor constraints are likely one reason for getting the occasional “no.” With time and patience, I have been able to realize the majority of my requests.
ASMP: Clearance to photograph structures such as bridges has become particularly difficult in recent years due to their status as a terror threat. Are there any aspects of the bridge or the construction process that you have not been allowed to photograph? Have any restrictions been placed on the display or distribution of your images due to this issue?
JS: As mentioned above, I was never allowed to photograph out on the arch while it was under construction. There are lots of details that I could never get to. I think this was more of a safety concern and the desire of the primary contractor to not show techniques, which might give them a competitive advantage on future projects. I have agreed not to publish some images until September. While security is a major concern, I am mostly photographing what can be readily seen by all who visit Hoover Dam. I am certain they checked me out early in the process and ascertained that my intentions are good.
ASMP: Please describe your interactions with those working on the bridge over the Hoover Dam project. What degree of contact have you had with project engineers, site workers and/or government officials? What has been their reaction to your work?
JS: My interactions have been limited to project management within FHWA. I have not been given access to site workers and this is perhaps my biggest regret of the project. I would have loved to hear their ideas and stories. (In 1994, Bausch & Lomb gave me a commission to artistically document the building of their new world headquarters in Rochester, New York. I was given 24/7 access to the site and full communication with workers. It was one of the most rewarding experiences of my photographic career.)
As government officials have come to know the work, they have been both quietly supportive and overtly enthusiastic. Some of the most supportive words have come from the photographic curators at the Library of Congress and selected museum curators and directors. The combination of historic and aesthetic images rarely happens on such projects, so the value is seen. I suspect I will hear from more people on both the government and private contractor sides once the project is fully complete and they are released from their contracts.
ASMP: What possible licensing usages might exist among the contractors and government agencies involved with the dam project?
JS: There are many future opportunities for licensing images to contractors of the bridge. Whether the government will have licensing interests remains to be seen. The Library of Congress is interested in acquiring work for their collection and has mentioned the possible archiving of the entire collection at some point in the future.
ASMP: Many of your photographs for this project have been made at night. Has this required different access or procedures in terms of security?
JS: We always let people know where we are and where we are going. This is true day or night, but especially at night. When I am with BOR personnel, they phone security to notify them of our next moves. When I am on FHWA controlled areas, we wear hard hats and reflective vests and have them inform the Hoover Dam Police of our actions. Since every square inch of the area around Hoover Dam is under surveillance, I want to make my activities as easy as possible for all concerned.
ASMP: Your night images, in particular, span a significant contrast range from highlights to deep shadows. What camera techniques or software tools do you use to render this extended range?
JS: All early and late ground-based images are on tripod and are bracketed to allow for later high dynamic range (HDR) imaging work. This ranges up to +/- two stops. I would do a wider range, if it were easy to do with the camera. While I have tried a few HDR software options, to date I have not liked the results of any. Hence, I subtly combine aspects from dark and light exposures through Layers and Masking in PhotoShop. I suspect that HDR software will be able to do amazing things within two years, but I want the effect to stay firmly within our traditional visual vocabulary. If I am successful with an image, I hope people will respond to the photograph, not the technique.
ASMP: Please talk about other technical aspects of the photography. What additional skills or techniques have you discovered or employed during these shoots?
JS: Surprisingly, this project has pushed me to hone many of my photographic skill sets. Prime lenses for optimal sharpness and contrast have been critical. Accuracy in focusing, especially at night, has been helped by the Live View mode. The very best tripod and tripod head for maximum stability is essential. Mirror lockup, patience and luck have helped me get sharp images with long lenses on scaffolding at night. In the air, a gyroscope has been essential, but balancing aperture, shutter speed, ISO combinations has been tricky in low-light aerial work. This project has required that I relax and creatively observe while maintaining absolute attention on technical use of the camera. Back at the computer, my approach to the images has gradually evolved, as one might expect during the course of a twenty-month project. I quietly manipulate saturation and local contrast to move each photograph towards its creative completion. I strive to communicate some of what I was feeling being able to photograph such a compelling construction project.
ASMP: You mention that this project has reawakened in you a sense of childhood curiosity and awe. Are there particular methods that you use to capture this sense in your images?
JS: I try to stay open, aware and observant when shooting. After I have shot an obvious photographic option, I ask myself what is less obvious or hidden? In the best of times, I move into a less “conscious” mode of seeing. I operate on a more intuitive level and, when this happens, I will often move smoothly from one photograph to the next.
As a small business owner, large and complex projects are a special fascination to me, as they involve a complex network of knowledge, skills and cooperation to be successfully completed. I hope I never lose this sense of wonder!
ASMP: Please talk about the distribution channels (social networking sites, photography portals, online magazines, traditional print publications, galleries, stock distributors, etc.) you’ve employed to spread the word about this project and market your images. Are there specific channels that have been more effective than others in generating attention and response?
JS: This is a big topic. I will try to summarize. As I began to realize the scale and scope of the Bridge at Hoover Dam project, we put a few items into place. We created a Web site dedicated to the project, www.bridgeathooverdam.com. We used on-demand publishing to print two different interim catalogs. And we created a large portfolio of images in book form, about 24x24 inches.
Even though my academic background is fine art and documentary photography, the majority of my career has been spent in the world of commercial assignment work. By acknowledging my “newcomer status” in the art world, I have sought out the experience, ideas and insights of dozens of people with a wide range of expertise. I have attended Review LA, Houston FotoFest, MOPLA and Review Santa Fe. I have made special trips to visit curators and gallery directors in Arizona and Washington, D.C. Photo blogs have helped spread the word: Aline Smithson’s Lenscratch, David Bram’s Fraction Magazine, Elizabeth Avedon’s blog, NPR’s The Picture Show and others… I have entered competitions and had success with several, including first place in Center’s Editor’s Choice Awards, an honorable mention in Center’s Curator’s Choice Awards, PDN’s Photo Annual, American Photography 26 and others.
I am extremely grateful that people are responding to this “labor of love.” I have successfully pursued significant editorial coverage on the Bridge project and more features are planned during the next few months. A few exhibitions are pending in the next few months, as well as the year ahead. Details on these will be announced as they are finalized. I am in discussions with a publisher about a book and others are helping me toward this goal. Expansive thinking is the operative approach. I am still photographing at the bridge — heading out next week for another round, continuing to edit the work of the past 16 months, and continuing to follow leads, which might help me share the work with a range of audiences. I am learning every day and enjoying the process immensely.
ASMP: You frame this project in the context of a historical perspective on the bridge construction, the Hoover Dam and the American West. What kind of research into these elements, if any, did you pursue in preparation for your shoots?
JS: As a long-time student of art and art history, the historic and contemporary portrayal of the American West is firmly etched in my mind. Still, my personal approach has not been about a conscious interaction with this history, rather it has been the synthesis of my personal and photographic skills and experiences in life. I have read a lot about Hoover Dam — its history, politics, economics and environmental impacts on the development of the American Southwest.
The bridge is also historic in its own right, apart from its relation to the dam. As the longest concrete arch bridge in North America, it represents a technical achievement that has captured the imagination of most, who have been privileged to see it under construction. I know a lot more about bridges than I did before the start of this project!
ASMP: Are there any particular references, either historical or aesthetic (photographic or otherwise) that have inspired your work on this project?
JS: I have tried to approach this project with creative freedom, inspiration and a personal point of view. If this body of work is successful and stands the test of time, then I credit a personal confidence to approach the work with hard work, dedication and passion. All our work stands on the creative shoulders of those who came before us. If we are aware, then their art permeates our visual vocabularies, both consciously and subconsciously.
ASMP: Please describe how this project has impacted your business. Has the project generated new clients or markets for your work? Has it given you new visibility with existing or past clients?
JS: I wish I could say this project has had a positive and transformative impact on my commercial business, but only time will tell if this will be the case. One only has so much time in a day and a project, such as this takes both time and energy away from other forms of business, marketing and development. In this recession, there have been no miracles. This project continues to give me great and varied exposure to a variety of new audiences. I hope to see new assignment and commission opportunities develop in the months ahead. I am the eternal optimist!
ASMP: Your commercial work is represented by Sharpe and Associates. Please talk about how this relationship was established and has evolved over time. What role would you say a personal project such as this plays in the evolution of this relationship?
JS: Sharpe and Associates (S+A) has represented me since 1995, a long time by industry standards. Like any relationship with durability, it has developed over time. Indeed, the nature of the photographer/rep relationship is very different than it was 15 years ago. My work is quiet and classic by contemporary standards. I continue to evolve, certainly influenced by the new work of others, but not reactive to it. I bring a depth of experience, creativity and production value to my work and clients, but I am not “hot” in the 2010 marketplace as other photographers within the group are. The Bridge at Hoover Dam project has excited both John Sharpe and Annika Vogt at S+A. They have both been very supportive from the onset, when we first presented the work to the New York Times Magazine in April 2009. I have felt more positive energy toward my work and me during this period. Our collective challenge is to find paid opportunities to create new bodies of work for interested clients. We have work to do!
ASMP: Please talk about your outreach to exhibit and/or publish this project in book form. What methods have you used to pursue these goals? What kind of results have you achieved so far? Are there specific venues that have been especially responsive or provide a particularly good fit for the work? Are there upcoming venues where this work will be exhibited or presented in public?
JS: First, let’s talk about exhibition of the work. One of my primary goals has been to share the work with those most directly connected to the bridge and Hoover Dam. The greater Las Vegas metro area is obviously at the top of the list. Nevada and Arizona come next as they share their borders at the dam. My outreach through the reviews and specific trips to Arizona, in particular, have been coupled with a clear statement of intent, which shows up on my Web site and in the catalog. This has begun to bear fruit in the past few months.
Photo-eye Gallery in Santa Fe was the first to offer me a show in Fall 2009, as a counterpoint to the work of Nick Brandt. Their support of the project has been tremendous. Terry Etherton responded enthusiastically to the work when I visited Tucson in March. The result will be an exhibition at the Etherton Gallery, Con-struct: The New West, in November to December 2010, shared with artist/photographers Martin Stupich and Michael Berman. I am working out details to mount an exhibition at Springs Preserve in Las Vegas, tentatively scheduled for late October 2010 through January 2011. This will allow me the direct venue to share with the Las Vegas community. It will also require fundraising to make it possible. A few other options are in the works at both art museums and galleries, but I cannot discuss details at this time. Photo-eye Gallery and Etherton Gallery are presently representing my work. I hope to slowly and carefully add a few more galleries over time. I am hopeful that we can build a traveling exhibition that can make its way through significant regional and national museums and institutions over the next few years.
Now the book… I am in discussions with one publisher, at present, and have some interest developing from a few others. I am also looking seriously at self-publishing, so that I am fully informed of all my options and can understand fully the costs and challenges involved with each option. One challenge is that, in an ideal world, I could publish both an “art book” and a “trade book,” the latter having its primary consumer base at Hoover Dam and the greater Las Vegas area. (At present, over 800,000 people visit Hoover Dam each year.) Whether these two options end up as one book, in both hard and soft cover versions, or they end up as separate books is the big question. I hope to have a book published by the time the bridge reaches its one-year anniversary in October/November 2011.