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Smile for the Tile

Self-made photographer Thomas Marlow wants to put your picture in the subway.

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Three days a week Thomas Marlow sets up his portable studio at the Silk Road Oasis in the Chicago Tourism Center and takes pictures of people. Hired by the city to capture visitors and Chicago residents alike, he sends his subjects home with a print of their choice, gratis. Each portrait takes about 15 minutes, as Marlow methodically gets a model release signed, takes anywhere from 5 to 30 shots, then displays them on his laptop and has the subject pick one. After eight weeks he figures he's gotten some 300 portraits. He hopes to have 500 by the time the gig is over, at the end of September.

But Marlow's plans for the collection don't stop there. What he ultimately wants is a set of 15,000 portraits, transferred to glazed tiles and permanently installed in the Red Line subway station at Grand and State. He estimates that it will take that many tiles, each one either 12 by 12 inches or 12 by 24.25, to cover the walls along both platforms and in the lobby and entrances. All he has to do is raise a couple million dollars and bring the CTA on board.

Marlow, who's 33, isn't what you'd call an established photographer. A high school dropout, he got his GED but never went to college, hitchhiking around the country instead. He's lived in Georgia, North Carolina, Michigan, and Maryland (on a sailboat). In 2000 he moved to Chicago--the "best city," he says, because it's "like New York but with a hot dish feel." Early in his career he was a "lumper," a term first used for dock workers unloading ships, now applied to what Marlow did: unloading merchandise at warehouses. The lumping business didn't promise much of a future, so Marlow started his own supply-chain-management firm, Logisteon, in 2003. He had one client, Global Berry Farms, and tracked its berries from the field--some 600 farmers were suppliers--to the warehouse. As part of quality control for Global he bought a camera to document the fruit. When his client's Chicago branch shut down, he began taking pictures of flowers. That was in 2004. Since then he's supported himself with odd jobs, some of them related to photography.

Inspired by the Web site of a venture called New York Street Studio--two photographers set up temporary "studios" in public places to take portraits--Marlow pitched a similar concept to Nathan Mason, curator of special projects for the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, back in February. Still, when Mason called in mid-June and asked him to start shooting in three days, Marlow was taken by surprise--and scared. "I'd done no portraits," he says, "and never worked with studio lighting." Still, on the appointed day he showed up with his digital camera, white backdrop, key light, umbrella, and laptop, much of the equipment purchased through a loan from a family member. Mason told Marlow then that he was in the right place at the right time, but now says he knew Marlow's drive and motivation meant he'd follow through.

Marlow's pictures from the Silk Road Oasis show a knack for portraiture. "I did what came to me," he says. Less than two weeks after he started he got a candid, playful shot of cellist Yo-Yo Ma snarling at the camera and curling his fingers into what look like dragon's claws. Marlow also enticed Lois Weisberg, the commissioner of Cultural Affairs, into making a very strange, unofficial-looking face (he's sure that photo is making the rounds among city workers). He asks for silly faces a lot, not because he'll use them but because making them usually loosens people up. Or he suggests his subjects pretend they're looking at someone they love. He asked one four-year-old, who reminded him of Calvin in Calvin & Hobbes, to start screaming and jumping up and down. The kid was happy to oblige, though his mother wasn't too pleased, and Marlow got him off the ground with his mouth wide open. He's also caught a salesman in a suit and tie poking his tongue out impishly, another middle-aged guy giving his "pimp look," and a young man smiling and pointing at the dimple in his cheek (he'd told Marlow, "This is what gets the ladies").

The pleasure of the work, Marlow says, is that "for a few minutes, I get a person to connect with me in a really intimate way." That can be difficult at times, though. One middle-aged woman who was clearly self-conscious about her gold teeth wouldn't open her mouth; Marlow finally stopped trying to make her smile. Another challenging subject was a stern 86-year-old from Greece. She didn't speak much English and seemed to think he was taking passport photos, but after much coaxing he got her to produce one tiny smile. That's an image he's clearly proud of, though its significance may be lost on others. "I want to get people like there's no camera," he says.

Marlow combined two ideas to come up with his subway proposal, which he calls the Chicago Street Studio Project. His original thought, which he gave the name "Family Expressed," was to have families' drawn self-portraits transferred to ceramic tiles for installation. Later, when he came across the New York portrait project (which was abandoned after 9/11, when it became too difficult to get permits), he put the concepts together, and voila. He figures it will take two years to get enough images for the Grand Avenue subway stop. When his Oasis gig ends in a month he plans to shoot outdoors in different neighborhoods, posting locations and times on his Web site, thomasmarlow.com.

Marlow also thinks it will take some two years of fund-raising, optimistically from both public and corporate sponsors, to get the $2 million he estimates it will cost to fabricate and install the tiles, pay himself something, and set up a full-service Web site. After talking to a rep from a German firm, Franz Mayer, he thinks the tiles should be glass rather than ceramic; the portrait would be on the wall side of the tiles, so you'd look through glass to see the image. He wants each tile printed with the subject's first name and city of residence; if it's Chicago, he'd give the neighborhood.

Why Grand and State? For one thing, so-called North Bridge has become the epicenter of Chicago tourism: near Michigan Avenue, the area is loaded with hotels, restaurants, and attractions like ESPN Zone and the Rock 'n' Roll McDonalds. So, in Marlow's mind at least, the project would be a tourist destination as well. Also, at the Grand stop the platforms adjoin the side walls of the tunnel, so the pictures could be easily viewed. (At the downtown stops, with their central platforms, leaning over the tracks to get a better look at the tunnel walls could be hazardous to your health.) The Grand Avenue stop is scheduled for renovation, and Marlow is hoping that the station's reconstruction could be combined with installation of the tiles. He met with 42nd Ward alderman Burton Natarus, who sent him off to talk to the CTA. He's still waiting to hear back from them.

Marlow's experience as a salesman may help when it comes to making calls and cutting through red tape. He adds that as a supply-chain manager his job was "planning, planning, planning." Yet he says of this project, "I don't expect it to take me anywhere. I love thinking about the possibilities, about someone walking into the station and being overwhelmed by this wall of portraits. I'm looking to capture people as they truly are, without the barriers, without the fear that so many of us carry around."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eric Futran.

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