Jamey Stillings had never been to Hoover Dam before last year. But a journey to the Mohave Desert with his assistant in 2009 brought the Santa Fe photographer across the dam and to a standstill. The arches of the Mike O'Callaghan -Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge were in the process of being built, and the image sparked his creative juices.

"I saw the bridge and said to my assistant, 'What do you think of spending 24 hours here?' and he said 'sure,' " Stillings recalled in a phone interview from New York City, where he was on assignment.

"There was something about looking at the bridge and seeing it arch across the canyon that was captivating."

Construction was going on 24/7, and Stillings knew he had to capture the process over time. The stunning results are in an exhibit now at Etherton Gallery.

When he was first inspired by the bridge, construction had been going on for six years. Though a part of him wishes he had been able to photograph from the first moment construction began, he knows on one level that the timing was right.

"Had I driven Hoover before the arches, I might have looked and said, 'Hey, that's interesting,' and driven off. Being there at that time is what made it more compelling."

Of course, nothing is ever easy. Stillings wasn't happy snapping the bridge from the dam. No, he wanted access that wasn't available to the general public.

A press pass from the New York Times Magazine - which would publish some of the images in its June 2009 issue on infrastructures - opened doors for him.

"By the time the publication came out, I decided I wanted to pursue it as a personal project."

That meant permits from the Bureau of Reclamation, the Federal Highway Administration, and Arizona and Nevada. Not an easy job, but he got it done.

It also meant a big commitment of his own money - not quite six figures, he said, but close.

He had to rent a helicopter for aerial views, and a Bureau of Reclamation employee had to be assigned to him every time he went into restricted areas. He had to pay for that, too.

Sales of the works, and a book he hopes to publish next year, may help him to regain some of that money.

But money has never been the object.

"It's been a labor of love. ... As a creative person, you are making images because it's important to you to be making images. You do it because you are compelled to do it as a way to look at the world. Then there's the part of you that wants to be able to share that - that's not always so successful. But when you can create the work and others respond to it, that's particularly gratifying."

Over the 18 months or so that he shot the bridge, he took more than 17,000 frames and spent a total of about 35 days stretched over that time at the dam.

After he started contacting galleries to drum up interest, Terry Etherton caught wind of the project.

"He called me one day about a year and a half ago," said Etherton. "He sent me a link to his portfolio. I was astonished by the pictures, especially the night pictures. I pulled people aside and said, 'Look at this. Is it really that spectacular?' "

It was, they agreed. And the show of about 20 prints - the first show in a commercial gallery for these Stillings works - was planned.

Here is a sampling of the works in the show - and what Stillings has to say about them.

On StarNet: See images from Stillings' bypass bridge at azstarnet.com/gallery

The Mike O'Callaghan-Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge by the numbers

$240 million

is the cost to build the bridge.

1,900

the length in feet of the bridge.

890

number of feet the bridge looms over the Colorado River below.

277

feet above Hoover Dam.

3.6 million

cubic yards of rock and embankment excavated for construction.

63,000

cubic yards of concrete were used for the entire bypass.

16 million

pounds of steel were used in the bridge.

374

days workers suffered through triple-digit temperatures over the eight-year project (the hottest was 117 degrees).

35

mph wind gusts swept through about 80 times each year over the construction.

SOURCE: Federal Highway Administration

If you go

• Con-Struct: The New West - Photographs by Michael P. Berman, Jamey Stillings and Martin Stupich

• Where: Etherton Gallery, 135 S. Sixth Ave.

• When: Through Dec. 31. Gallery hours are 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays.

• Cost: Free.

• Et cetera: Find more information on the gallery at www.ethertongallery.com and more images from Stillings' bypass bridge shoot at www.bridgeathooverdam.com

Contact reporter Kathleen Allen at kallen@azstarnet.com or 573-4128.