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First Personalities: Talking with JJ Tiziou

First Personalities is a series on the First Person Arts Blog where we check up on and catch up with past Festival and Salon presenters and participants.

how-philly-movesI think of JJ Tiziou as the unofficial photographer of Philadelphia. A well-known figure among Philly’s artistic and activist communities, JJ is getting some recognition from the big guns, thanks to How Philly Moves. His photographs of Philly dancers will be the basis for a large-scale mural on the parking decks facing I-95 at the Philadelphia International Airport.

I sat down with JJ on Saturday and got the scoop on his latest goings-on. Honestly, it was just an excuse to sit down with a friend whom I don’t see enough! We’ll be focusing on How Philly Moves in today’s post. Look for Part 2 on Friday when we talk about his community supported model of photography and the belief that everyone is photogenic.

“Philly is a city that dances.”
How Philly Moves (HPM) began as a candidate for a Septa-sponsored public art installation in 2008. Collaborating with sculptor James Peniston of Studio 34, JJ put out a call for dancers to join him for community photo shoots. They would dance; JJ would photograph. And the term “dancer” was by no means exclusive. Trained, amateur, professional, social dancing… it was all welcome. Two successful preliminary shoots led to more shoots held during the Philly Fringe in September 2008.

JJ and James’ project was one of five finalists for the Septa commission, but it wasn’t selected. But the excitement around the project – both the photo shoots and resulting exhibition in an empty storefront at 36th and Walnut – made it clear that they were on to something.

site design © JJ Tiziou

design concept © JJ Tiziou

A bit later, Mural Arts was embarking on its project of “gateways into the city” and the Deputy Mayor of Transportation had already envisioned the parking decks along I-95 as an ideal canvas. From a national call for artists, four were selected, including JJ (the only Philadelphian in the bunch). In late August 2009, the committee made their selection.

The project is getting started now both on site and in the studio. Surveyors are looking at the surface of the parking garage and figuring out how the non-traditional surface – gaps, ridges, 45 degree angle drops – will translate to the flat fabric that will be painted off-site by the as-yet-to-be-announced mural artist. What will look perfectly in proportion and 2-D from the cars driving down the highway will actually be carefully distorted in 3D rendering software to account for the 3D aspects of the garage surface.

Meanwhile, this weekend brings the first official shoot for the latest iteration of HPM. Over 400 people signed up for the 60 slots at the shoot. The popularity isn’t surprising. As JJ notes, “By the definition of the project, every person [is] perfect for it.” However, choices had to be made. When choosing the dancers, the priority was on capturing a diversity of dancers based on style, age and neighborhood.

The photo shoots are like dance pieces themselves, as JJ moves with and around the photo subject. His volunteers have even gotten in the act, like when some of his assistants jumped in to make the subject – someone more comfortable among the crowd and chaos of the nightclub scene – feel at home.

It’s a different way of shooting, using slower shutter speeds to capture the energy of the movement and where the constant movement means fewer workable frames; you aren’t guaranteed to capture a sharp shot with each take. Sometimes the picture is too blurry, other times it’s too static and then there are the handful of shots when the blurring works for you.

When I asked JJ what his plan is for this weekend, his answer was simple. “Take a lot of pictures.”

JJ & friends

JJ & friends

“It’s much more than my project…[there’s] a big community behind me.”
While JJ is the lead name attached to the project, many people have made the project a success thus far. It goes beyond the big name sponsors, and they are indeed big – Mural Arts, Bank of America, US Airways, the airport, the parking authority, the city itself. It includes the many dancers and volunteers who have participated. When creating the original proposal for Septa, JJ made a call for volunteer help installing the project, expecting a handful of responses. Suddenly he had a forty-person crew pledging to give days of work for free. At the photo shoots, he’s had up to 15 volunteers setting up lights, checking in dancers, and uploading photo files.

And it’s not too late to become involved in HPM. Signing up on the website will keep you in the loop as the project moves forward. JJ definitely wants more photo shoots. An exhibition of photos will be concurrently on exhibit at the airport, offering a space for the images not able to make the mural. The potential exists for satellite murals and other partner projects. JJ sees HPM as constantly evolving, not finished when the mural goes up in late spring 2011. “If the dance community wants to build on this, get involved, tell the city.” HPM is bigger than even a 50,000 square foot mural can cover. It’s a city-wide audience engagement/empowerment project. It advertises the diverse, amazing dance scene in Philly, but it also says, in the words of JJ, “You dance too.” Anyone can participate. Anyone can move. Anyone can dance.

Even JJ. He was most recently a part of Anna Drozdowski’s dance piece at the CEC in the New Edge Mix Performance Series.

Check out Part 2 of our interview next week.

-Karina Kacala

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