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Old dams and a new bridge

Sometimes you wonder: what drives people? 

This time of year, the only thing that sets me in motion is a pot of coffee and lot of sunshine. 

Coffee you can brew anywhere. To find sunshine, I snuck away to Tucson for the week.

While there, I attended to the opening of a photography exhibit and happened to meet three people who are driven by more than coffee.

One of the photographers, Jamey Stillings, decided two years ago that the new Hoover Dam bridge, then in construction, was a thing of beauty. 

Stillings fought tooth and nail through layers of bureaucracy for the right to get close enough to photograph the $240 million bridge project from all different angles and at all hours. 

He filled out forms. He paid fees. He waited for permits. Project managers turned him down countless times. 

Stillings adjusted and took what shots he could get. 

Twice, Stillings hired a helicopter to hover over the bridge for four hours until the light got just right. Those long, expensive hours yielded only three minutes of sunshine. 

Stillings got the shots. They are perfect--unless you talk to Stillings, who is quick to point out the imperfections and explain how they happened, despite his Herculean efforts.

Stillings' bridge shots have been published in the New York Times Magazine, Arizona Highways, and dozens of other publications. The stunning photos are winning awards of all sorts around the world and will likely alter the trajectory of Stillings' already successful career. 

Stillings introduced me to a quiet, unpretentious gentleman who had driven hours to attend the exhibit. 

Eric DeLony, an architect, turned his love for bridges into a career. An expert in historic bridges from Roman times to present, DeLony eventually headed up the division at the Library of Congress that preserves blue prints, diagrams, photographs and accounts of America's historic structures. 

The Historic American Engineering Record, which DeLony ran for more than 30 years, is one of the most widely used collections at the Library of Congress. 

In retirement, DeLony persues his passion: The preservation of historic bridges. To that end, he travels, consults, lectures and writes articles. 

On the opposite side of the exhibit hall from the Stillings exhibit hung a series of pictures of massive old dams and public projects, most built in the 1920s. Eventually the photographer, Martin Stupich, asked me if I had any questions. 

For several decades, Stupich has been recording some of the great public works projects, many of which have since been destroyed or altered. His photographs, like those of Stillings, celebrate the aesthetic value of structures, which might otherwise be seen as sterile, even ugly.

Stupich bubbled with enthusiasm as he told the stories behind the structures in his pictures. 

One dam in the Arizona mountains, built of blocks of granite, was named by a society of engineers as "the most beautiful structure in the world" in 1915.

It has since been covered up by a new concrete dam, its beauty preserved only in photographs. 

Another dam built in the 1920s employed the technology of an eggshell. To this day, it holds back the megatons of water with three massive but delicate concrete orbs only four inches thick. 

The dam which created Lake Havasu is built upon a foundation poured 23 stories deep, the deepest foundation of any dam in the world. 

Another structure, the remains of a silver refining plant in Nevada which was abandoned in the 1920s, looked much like the ruins of a Greek temple. Stupich has photographed the eerie pillars many times over the past 30 years. 

For safety reasons, the oddly beautiful remains were blown up last week. 

By recording these massive marvels, Stillings, DeLony and Stupich honor the engineers whose sweeping, daring visions were poured into concrete, as well as the legions of workers who did the pouring. 

More interesting to me is the passion that drives people like Stillings, DeLony and Stupich to devote a lifetime to a very specific and often obscure interest. 

Their willingness to concentrate on their task and see it through to completion, even if it takes decades, is noble and rare. 

No amount of coffee in the world could drive me to take on such specialized, difficult and obscure tasks and stick with them until they produce knowledge and art which enriches the world.