Capturing the energy that makes a city move

Photographer Jacques-Jean "JJ" Tiziou , editing shots for "How Philly Moves," a projection project being installed at Phila. International Airport. He has working in the city since 2008 to capture rhythms of urban life. The results are getting a preview on the side of the Kimmel after dark.
Photographer Jacques-Jean "JJ" Tiziou , editing shots for "How Philly Moves," a projection project being installed at Phila. International Airport. He has working in the city since 2008 to capture rhythms of urban life. The results are getting a preview on the side of the Kimmel after dark.

A video montage for airport gets preview at Kimmel.

Posted: April 21, 2011

Warming up the Kimmel Center facade from dusk to dawn through May 1 are images of dancing people - all sorts of people - made by photographer Jacques-Jean "JJ" Tiziou, the creative force behind the soon-to-bloom Philadelphia International Airport mural project "How Philly Moves."

Last weekend, Sofia Kunopelsky and Jennifer Frecon stood across Broad Street, taking in the video montage and liking what they saw.

"It's New York-esque. I think it really speaks to people on the street." said Kunopelsky. Frecon agreed: "It's very inviting when you look at the average person just breaking out of their shell and expressing themselves."

The Philadelphians who participated in Tiziou's dance shoots - 160 so far - are of all nationalities, ages, sizes, shapes, and backgrounds. Only a few have danced professionally, but all share joy, energy, and love of movement.

Since 2008, Tiziou has been snapping their moves and the urban diversity they reflect for the five-to-seven-story murals that will spread across 50,000 square feet of the airport parking structures. The project, done under the auspices of the Mural Arts Project, is being installed by a team of muralists now and should be completed in July.

"The way someone moves is a key to their inner life and expression as individuals," Tiziou said on a cold, rainy day a week before the opening of the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts, which runs through May 1 and is the forum for his Kimmel Center projections.

Earlier that day, he'd been aloft on scaffolding across from the Kimmel, in the structure housing the projection booth that beams dancers' images onto the wall. The screenings - which display images in computer-generated random sequences - blend video, stop-motion animation, and "working with the stills and incorporating a lot of the imagery," he said. He collaborated with videographer Tobin Rothlein, codirector of Miro Dance Theatre, on the film designs for the Kimmel site.

Tiziou, 32, lives in West Philadelphia and is fervent community networker. He moved to the city from Washington in 1997 to attend the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned a fine arts degree. He started as a biochemistry major, "but I got wrapped up in photographing for the Daily Pennsylvanian . . . and it somewhat took over my life."

Though his parents are French, he grew up in Silver Spring, Md., and the nation's capital: "Aside from some summers with family in France, I was pretty much in D.C. until I came to Philly, which felt like home right away."

Since then, he's become prominent in the city's arts world, his dance and theater photographs representing the work of some of its best and most adventurous companies, as well as such events as the annual Live Arts Festival/Philly Fringe.

When people are in motion, Tiziou is moving with them. As the photographer directing the shoots for "How Philly Mover," he also was very much part of the action, "doing a little dance, to get the best vantage points." Even with video and other elements, he said, "this is very much a photography project."

"We use video in this, and stop motion, and animated sequences of stills. Taking the whole batch of pictures and choosing not what might be considered the best ones - but all taken at high speed to get a real time sequence.

"I knew that those who aren't used to performing on film would be self-conscious and artificial. But there will be one split second where you get their energy."

His photos are known for their intimate and kinetic quality. Nick Stuccio, producing director of the Live Arts Festival, gives clues to that "magic" as he describes the qualities of Tiziou's dance photography: "You can talk about the tech end, and he understands light and composition like a lot of artists. But he has in intuitive ability to see things that others don't.

"He's actively involved. He's on his back, he'll perch in a tree or a rafter. He'll be onstage on his head. I've watched him and he'll study a subject and he'll insert himself. He knows how to capture the essence of a person, and he can read the context of the world they live in - and that's the gift: He gets the moment when it's all evident."

Tiziou didn't have much in the way of funding for "How Philly Moves" but relied on "calling in favors, asking friends to volunteer, and getting spaces donated. With digital transition and social media, you can make it more flexible, show the work right away - a public-art practice that I started with the Live Arts Festival, where I shot thousands of images, for instance, photographing not just the performers."

His current work in public art has changed his view of the business end of photography.

"I learned how to photograph from working with commercial photographers and photojournalists, but learned what to photograph from artists and activists, whose priorities don't match up with the mainstream media market, he said.

"I had this idea of community-supported photography for the longest time, that actually celebrates community."

On his website,, he sums it up in a simple statement: "Everyone is photogenic."

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