When he's working, Jacques-Jean "J.J." Tiziou is intensely physical, bordering on acrobatic. He bounds around in a flurry of motion and has even hung backward off moving vehicles. It seems difficult, even strenuous, considering what he does: He takes photographs.
"People think that's the hard work when they see me running around, climbing trees, throwing myself into taking a picture," says the 32-year-old who's called Philly home since 1997. "I'm motivated to move that fast because I've already done the hard work of observation in my head, of anticipating the shot and seeing how things line up and creating the image. Then I go chasing after it."
All that motion has resulted in two substantial showcases of Tiziou's work happening this month. Throughout PIFA, from dusk to dawn, a rotating slideshow of images from his How Philly Moves series — which celebrates Philadelphia dancers of all stripes — will be projected on the façade of the Kimmel Center. The temporary artwork is presented in collaboration with the Mural Arts Program, which in parallel is beginning the installation of an enormous How Philly Moves mural on the parking garage of Philadelphia International Airport, a collaboration between Tiziou and painter Jon Laidacker.
"He's capturing joy," says Mural Arts executive director Jane Golden of Tiziou's project. "That's what you feel. It makes me want to jump up and down."
Tiziou is known for his mastery of fly-on-the-wall intimacy, whether that means professional headshot portraits, vivid scenes documenting civil unrest or this latest endeavor. The How Philly Moves project began in 2008, when Tiziou staged a series of community photo shoots gathering the city's dancers — not professional, highly trained Swan Lake types, but rather everyday folks who like to dance. He asked them to do their thing for the camera, set against a black fabric backdrop. He found their personalities in the bright swatches of their outfits, in the colorful blur of their movements, in the cheek-to-cheek tenderness of slow dances, in the bright expressions on their faces.
Despite his enthusiasm for the project, Tiziou was uncertain about its fate. He initially hoped for an art commission for the 46th Street stop of the Market-Frankford El. He was a finalist, but didn't get the SEPTA gig. However, the positive response he received fueled a June 2008 exhibit, with his photos installed in a vacant storefront at 36th and Sansom.
A few months later at the Fringe Festival, he set up a photo booth to get more shots of people dancing, with mixed success. For the initial How Philly Moves sessions, he scheduled people in 10-minute intervals. At the Fringe, "I kind of threw it open to the public and figured everyone would come," he recalls. Instead, the response was underwhelming, and "I had definite moments of idleness."
It looked as if the project could potentially be foundering. And yet it would find salvation from an unexpected, and immensely popular, source.
The Mural Arts Program had been searching for an idea for its "gateway initiative" — something that would visually engage people as they arrived in the city. One day in 2009, Golden was sitting in her office, mulling over possibilities, when she received a phone call from Deputy Mayor Rina Cutler.
"She was stuck in traffic on 95, staring at the garage, when it hit her," Golden said. "She called to tell me, 'I think we found our first project.'"
When he heard about the Mural Arts grant for the airport project, Tiziou was re-energized. He applied, won the commission, and set to work figuring out how his photographs could translate into a 55,000-square-foot piece of public art wrapping around a parking garage.
For Tiziou, creating a mural was a new experience. For painter Jon Laidacker, it was a well-traveled road. A graduate of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Laidacker sees photography as a natural evolution of the tools used for painting; all 15 murals he's completed since 2005 have been photo-based. Still, when Mural Arts approached him, he had doubts about dedicating a year of his life to another artist's design.
"I hate to say it, but there was definitely a bit of an ego thing involved," Laidacker says. "So I decided that to make a well-informed decision, I had to meet J.J. and get to know him."
It took only one meeting — the two hit it off. Laidacker was inspired by the way the work could bolster the perception of Philadelphia as an arts hub.
"This city hasn't always appreciated the reputation for its cultural scene that it should," he says. "My hope is that this project will become a sort of visual synonym for just that."
A massive undertaking, the airport mural involves 1,500 sheets of painted cloth handled by Laidacker's seven assistants and painted by hundreds of volunteers in a donated studio space on the third floor of The Gallery. Golden says it's one of the largest murals not just in the country but the world. Laidacker says it's the most complicated — from the rough, patchy nature of the surface, to the considerations like weather and temperature that could drastically affect the installation, to the fact that nobody will really know what it looks like from I-95 until it's assembled.
From his archive of tens of thousands of How Philly Moves images, Tiziou selected 26 dancers to adorn the garage. An exhibit of additional images will be hung in the baggage-claim area in Terminal C. Additionally, video work by filmmaker Ellen Reynolds — a longtime friend of Tiziou — and Big Picture Alliance is planned for installation. Reynolds also edited the slideshow footage that will be cycling on the Kimmel's façade during PIFA.
"Public art has a vital role to play in the health of communities and cities," Reynolds says, "and people's sense of themselves within the larger community." Tiziou's work, she explains, projects an immensely positive image for the community to feed off. "An important part of my video-making practice is to create imagery which affirms the beauty, dignity, humanity and possibility of 'regular' people."
It echoes Tiziou's oft-repeated mantra: "Everyone is photogenic." Beauty as sold to us by corporate advertising campaigns is false; beauty as seen in the public is real, and he harnesses that. Ironically, it was his lack of a public art résumé that caused Tiziou to hesitate when applying for the Mural Arts commission. He had shot commercial work, documentary journalism, lively arts — but he'd never done a large-scale public piece.
"But then I realized a lot of what I've done fits with that model of public art," he says. "Because it's about celebrating communities and sharing those images back with them."
How Philly Moves mural, through May 1, dusk till dawn, free, Kimmel Center façade, 300 S. Broad St., 215-546-7432, pifa.org, jjtiziou.net.