Berkeley's "Picture Man" is artist from bygone era

- They call him The Picture Man.

In an age where anyone with an iPhone can take a selfie and clicking off snapshots with a traditional camera has become a thing of the past, Berkeley's Orie Rutchick is proving that the old-school, black-and-white portrait is a timeless treasure. 

But, while Rutchick set out to create art, he also created a controversy. 

For several months now, the 67-year-old life-long photographer has turned his lens on homeless people, passersby and area residents interested in having a portrait made inside the mobile studio he sets up outside the Berkeley Drop-In Center or the Alcatraz Market, both in South Berkeley. 

“I take photographs of anybody who wants their photograph taken,’’ said Rutchick, who moved to South Berkeley from Minneapolis three years ago. “I hope they are special to them.’’ 

Rutchick said the process is about more than just taking someone’s picture. 

“My intention is to create a history of Berkeley. This started off as an art project and it quickly became a social project,’’ he said.

Rutchick said it’s not uncommon for those sitting for a picture to tell him their problems, much like someone might dish to a hair dresser or a bartender. 

“One guy said, ‘thanks for the head dump,’’’ Rutchick recalled.

So far, he’s captured the faces of about 120 people, the majority of them local homeless people, many of whom haven’t had a picture of themselves taken in years. 

That was true for Kim Jones, who said she has been homeless for about a year and a half.  

“At first I didn’t want to do it, but I hadn’t taken a professional photo like that in a long time so I thought I’d take advantage of it,’’ Jones said. 

After the brief shoot, Rutchick prints out and gives his subjects three black-and-white photos, free of charge. 

“Having a print in hand, rather than a digital image, seems to bring my subjects a sense of self and place, and they take pride in seeing themselves in that moment and in a new light, regardless of where they are in life,’’ Rutchick explained. 

But Rutchick’s project hit a road block in May when he was notified by mail that he could face hefty fines because he was operating the photo booth (once a week for three hours) without a permit and a business license. 

What’s more, his portable studio is, under Berkeley code, too big to be considered for an “object on sidewalk permit,” Rutchick said. He was also told the booth was, from a least one street corner, obstructing motorist’s views, something Rutchick said was an honest mistake. 

“I would never have endangered a car or a pedestrian if I knew that,’’ he said.  

Currently, South Berkeley Councilmember Ben Bartlett is working with city staff on amending the permitting process to give Rutchick and other artists in need of a similar permit the ability to obtain one. The matter goes before the Berkeley City Council on July 10. 

“It is my imperative to drive home the fact that we need more freedom, not less,” Bartlett said. “The arts are fundamental expression of freedom.”

While most people who pass by the photo booth or stop and sit for a portrait are approving of the unique idea, there have been some skeptics: those who have asked Rutchick if he was working for the FBI or taking photos for “wanted” posters. 

Quite the contrary, he said. 

“This gives me the opportunity to engage with and meet my neighbors,’’ he said. “They call me The Picture Man.” 

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