- Imaging Hoover Dam: The Making of a Cultural Icon by Anthony F. Arrigo
During the summer of my 12th year, my aunt took me to see the Hoover Dam. The image in my head is different than any physical image I have seen since that time. This type of shifting representation is the impetus for Anthony F. Arrigo’s masterful work Imaging Hoover Dam: The Making of a Cultural Icon. Arrigo argues there is not a singular image that stands as the definitive representation of Hoover Dam. Rather, the variety of images associated with Hoover Dam were used by multiple parties to create perceptions about the dam, its construction, its meaning, and its utility. In addition, Arrigo explores how the absence of images also helped to construct perceptions about the dam. More than an analysis of images, this book takes a historical approach to examine how text and image interacted to function as the perceptual construction of a cultural icon.
Arrigo begins chapter 1: “The construction of Hoover Dam was an achievement that owes its realization to a long and rich history of Western religious, political, and cultural imperatives; thus, it is vitally important to establish this framework at the outset if we are to understand why and how certain images were created and circulated at particular times in the dam’s history” (14). Chapters 1 and 2 are a recounting of the historical context in which the dam was conceived and built. Along with the political wrangling that surrounded the dam, the potential for natural disaster, such as the opposing calamities of flooding and drought, made for a site rife with contention.
Chapter 3 begins the visual analysis of how the dam was sold to the various constituencies responsible for it. Arrigo grounds his analysis of drawings of the dam with a discussion of visual theory concerning two-dimensional processing of information. In this way, the author is able to establish why the depiction of the dam through illustration, rather than photographs, necessarily projected the desired interpretation of the enterprise. This chapter, too, is rich in historical detail. Arrigo neatly ties historical occurrences with a discussion of illustrations of the dam to support his contentions. [End Page 525]
“Picturing the Sublime,” chapter 4 in Imaging Hoover Dam, gets to the heart of the premise of the book. Namely, visuals of the Hoover Dam were attempts to “describe the indescribable” (95). The chapter begins with a discussion of the notion of the sublime, “a state of intense, awe-inspiring emotion” (95). It then moves to an analysis of the ways in which images attempted to convey the sheer enormity of the project. These images ranged from comparisons of known objects (e.g., the Great Pyramids of Egypt) to the dam, to the juxtaposition of humans, to some of the technical features of the dam (Penstock Pipes).
Chapter 5, “The Unseen,” is perhaps the most revealing chapter in the book. These pages dwell on what is not shown in images about the dam. The absence of images of minorities, women, and working and living conditions reveal as much about the history of the dam as the carefully controlled images produced by the Bureau of Reclamation and other entities associated with the project. Arrigo details a labor strike where workers refused to enter tunnels because of safety issues. Though the strike was ultimately unsuccessful, it received considerable attention in the media. What is interesting, as Arrigo notes, is the lack of images to support the written stories.
Also absent were images of black workers, Native Americans, and women. This is best explained by their physical absence on the site. According to Arrigo, hiring practices at the dam were decidedly antiblack and favored white veterans instead. The chapter discusses one photo of black workers, which was “kept in reserve to distribute as part of a publicity buffer in the event that charges of racism were brought against the government” (161). While there are a few more images of Native Americans, the reasons for these...