The question, photographer Jacques-Jean "JJ" Tiziou explains, is not whether the brunet woman in tight jeans and a midriff-baring red T-shirt is a great dancer. It's whether there's enough joy in her face to send a 75-foot-high message to the masses.
Tiziou, 30, is designing "How Philly Moves" (www.howphillymoves.org), an epic gateway mural on the parking decks flanking Philadelphia International Airport. Unlike the 3,000 outdoor paintings that came before it in this mural-mad city, this one imagines public art as a spirited introduction to Philly for strangers driving along I-95.
"I'm looking for movement more than portraiture," Tiziou tells me as we sit in his West Philadelphia office recently, staring at a Mac screen filled with images of dancers in states of concentrated bliss.
"Figures and expressions make the picture," he says. "When people drive by, I want them to be able to look up at this celebration and say, 'Wow, I could see myself up there.' "
Spanning a half-mile of garage facade and costing $225,000, the yearlong project represents the largest and costliest in the Philadelphia Mural Arts program's ambitious 25-year history.
Tiziou, a 2002 Penn grad, photographed more than 150 would-be models all vying for a shot at larger-than-lifesize immortality.
He shot a ballroom hoofer in a wheelchair, a 4-year-old in a tutu, and the elderly members of Lansdale's Peak Tappers. One woman used a hula hoop as a prop; one man danced with his trombone.
The eager volunteers included amateur break-dancers and professional ballerinas. Multiple headdress-wearing Aztec dancers showed up, as did elaborately costumed locals doing plena (Puerto Rico) and cumbia (Colombia). Two middle-aged men wore rags and antlers for a Mummeresque ancient Welsh Morris Dance.
"And then there were the kids doing waacking," Tiziou tells me. "I'd never heard of it, but it's like voguing, and it's really cool."
On the first afternoon, I watched Kimberly Rollins, a 39-year-old South Philadelphia mother and hairstylist, perform an Indian belly dance and a modern number.
"Dancing takes me out of my body," Rollins said afterward. "Nothing makes me feel freer."
Sarah Gowan, of Drexel Hill, echoed that sentiment after finishing her medley of Appalachian flatfooting, contemporary clogging, and English wooden-shoe dancing.
"When I'm dancing," Gowan said after catching her breath, "I feel like I'm moving through the world in a better way."
In the next month, Tiziou must whittle down 18,000 images to the 18 or so best-suited to appear seven stories high at one of the oddest outdoor gallery spaces imagined.
Sipping strong coffee at his computer, Tiziou scrolls through photographs of the young and the wrinkled, the round and the taut, falling in love with all of them. He's so determined to show the beauty in all bodies that he's written an electronic "manifesto" of sorts at www.everyoneisphotogenic.com.
For the mural project, Tiziou used a slow shutter speed and ambient light to capture a dreamy mix of sharpness and blur. "I'm trying to do a duet," he explains, "with people who are improvising."
He'll be thrilled to get "one killer shot" of each dancer. Even then, he would still have to choose who gets to loom over the highway location, appear in smaller satellite murals around town and in a permanent art exhibit at the airport.
Arts advocates haven't been shy about voicing their opinions, even though Tiziou insists "this isn't a competition. It's not about who's the best dancer in Philadelphia."
For a project that aims to bottle joy, Tiziou knows "How Philly Moves" may disappoint some. Because, even when you're working with a 50,000-square-foot canvas, "there's really only so much wall space."
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