As immortality goes, it's fairly painless: Stand in line, sign a release form, then smile — or not — for the camera.
When the Fourth Avenue Underpass, now under reconstruction, is finished this summer, passers-by will be greeted by the photographed visages of close to 7,000 Tucsonans — and maybe a dog or two.
The photographs, each baked onto an almost 4-by-4-inch glazed tile, will be splayed across four large mural panes at the entrances to the underpass.
Already, more than 4,000 Tucsonans — the oldest in their 90s, the youngest just 1 week old — have posed for the camera.
"We started at the beginning of November," says Gary Patch, whose firm, Patch & Clark Design, is doing all the shooting for the Tucson Portrait Project.
Aiming to catch people at public venues, they've set up their booth everywhere from the opera to the swap meet.
"The Fourth Avenue Street Fair was insane," says Patch. "We were shooting 1,200 portraits."
"I do about one photo a minute," says Patch's partner, Darren Clark, who does all the photography.
At a gathering at Reid Park after last Monday's Martin Luther King Jr. march, Clark's digital camera seemed to be clicking much faster than that.
After taking four or five photos, he feeds them to Patch, who picks out the likeliest photo, edits and crops it down to tile size, then sends it along to the computer of helper Mellow Dawn Lund for further processing.
While all this may seem akin to the assembly-line photos taken over at the Motor Vehicle Division, this one aims for much more.
"I ask people to offer me genuine emotion — anger, joy, whatever," says Clark.
Often, they deliver.
"The day before, I had this 70-year-old man," Clark says. "He said he was the class clown. If you passed him on the street, you'd never know. But he did one crazy expression after another. He was way over the top."
They've photographed the homeless on the far South Side, as well as shoppers browsing at the tony La Encantada shopping center in the Foothills.
"It's taken us places we don't usually go," says Patch. "We've got some tattoos, some punk rockers, all races. We've done high end, low end and everything in between."
Not to mention photographing out of species. "We've shot about a dozen dogs, one cat, a horse and a chicken," says Patch.
After the photos are done at the end of February, they'll be sent to a Brazilian tile company that will use pulverized minerals rather than ink to transfer the photos onto the tiles before baking.
"The image becomes part of the tile. It's baked right in there," says Patch, adding that they could not find a company locally to do this. "We had to find a tile company that could produce tiles that would be UV-proof."
As with many ideas, this one came from a light-bulb moment.
"I was in a meeting last February with business owners representing the north and south side of the underpass," says Patch. "The architect was talking about tile imagery and doing landscapes, desert things. The idea just popped into my head: 'Why don't we take photos of living Tucsonans?' "
Not long after, the project was approved.
Unlike the larger-than-life folks depicted in the Broadway Underpass murals, Tucsonans appearing in the tiles of this underpass will have to squint hard to find themselves.
"When the tiles are set up, you'll be able to find the area you're in on our Web site," says Patch. Armed with that, participants, on foot, should then be able to find themselves on the tiles.
"The new underpass will be more pedestrian-friendly and interesting," says Patch. Bike lanes also will be included.
That's important to Jeneiene Schaffer, 43, who's just had her photo taken for the mural. "I rode my bike through there every day. I loved its historical connection," she says, acknowledging that the new underpass will be better for bicyclists.
Schaffer's husband, Daniel Patterson, 37, is a Democrat representing Southern Arizona's District 29 in the state House of Representatives. "This is a cool project," says Patterson, who also is getting his photo taken. "The city is the people, and this is a lasting tribute to them."
Chances are he'll be representing Tucson, in tile form, far longer than his stint in politics.
Most here today, however, seem to be less interested in infrastructure and more in their place in history, however minute.
"I like that it will be there forever," says Irma Mitchell, 41.
Well, at least until the next massive reconstruction project begins.
DID YOU KNOW
The new Fourth Avenue Underpass, costing $26 million, will be wide enough to accommodate a streetcar, walkways and bike lanes.
The Tucson Portrait Project will be taking free photos on:
• Friday, 10 a.m. to noon, U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva's office, 810 E. 22nd St.
• Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Tucson Chinese Cultural Center, 1288 W. River Road.
• Feb. 10, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., University Medical Center, 1501 N. Campbell Ave.
• For more locations or for information, go to tucsonportraitproject.com