Orie Rutchick

Berkeley Man Shooting "Human Photo Record" Of Neighbors And Homeless

Photographer Works With City Hall To Reopen Pop-Up Photo Studio

Doug Sovern
July 19, 2018 - 5:00 am

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then Orie Rutchick is writing a novel on the streets of South Berkeley.

Since last October, the accomplished photographer has taken pictures of more than a hundred people in a pop-up, makeshift photo studio that he sets up on sidewalks and street corners. Rutchick shoots black-and-white portraits—on real film—then develops the film himself and makes prints, for free, for his subjects. "Most of them are homeless," he says, as he sets up his booth in front of a corner market at Alcatraz Avenue and California Street. "Many haven't had their picture taken in 30 or 40 years, if ever." 

But Rutchick's pro bono Berkeley Portrait Project—"a human record of the neighborhood," he says—was interrupted recently by Berkeley officials. A code compliance officer shut him down, because he didn't have a permit or a business license. "They said I was blocking the sidewalk, or obscuring the views of motorists." Rutchick, 67, went to the City Council, explained his project, and lobbied for permission. Last week, councilmembers agreed to amend the permit ordinance and gave Rutchick the green light to resume.

Now, he's back in business. On Wednesday, a man named Jacques Manns stumbled upon Rutchick's mobile studio and peered in. "You taking pictures? For free?" Rutchick waved him in. "Come on in, it's just you and me," said the photographer. He placed his camera close to Manns' face and snapped three shots. "Ooh, yes, that's the money shot," said Rutchick.

"I know when I get a good shot," he told KCBS Radio. "It really becomes an intimate experience for the both of us." Manns walked away happy. Next week, he'll come back to pick up his three free prints. "That was really cool. Get a nice picture from a great photographer." said Manns. "It's great for the community."

Rutchick says that's a common reaction. "Oh, they're so excited," he says. "It's a physical manifestation of themselves that they just wouldn't have. They have something physical, something they can touch and feel, rather than just an iPhone photo, that they can share with somebody."

Rutchick hopes to get a Civic Arts Grant to wrap the Berkeley Drop-In Center, a multi-purpose community mental health facility on Adeline Street, in a mural of his Berkeley Portrait Project. In the meantime, he'll keep building his portfolio. "My hope has always been when I've documented Berkeley, at least my area, is that it become a record, a human record, of what this was before it all changed." And now, he's doing it with the blessing of Berkeley officials. "You can fight City Hall," he smiles.

Learn more about the Berkeley Portrait Project, and find out where Rutchick will set up next.

Orie Rutchick

Orie Rutchick