Berkeley photographer can continue his street portrait project

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A South Berkeley photographer who was taking black-and-white portraits of homeless people and neighborhood residents at a mobile studio he set up on a street corner has won a fight with city hall and will be allowed to continue his unique project. 

Around South Berkeley, Orie Rutchick, 67, is known as The Picture Man. But when a Berkeley code enforcement officer spotted him and his closet-sized mobile studio outside the Berkeley Drop-In Center every week, he became known as a hazard. 

Rutchick started the Berkeley Portrait Project last October and by April he was notified that he could face hefty fines because he was operating the photo booth (every Tuesday for three hours) without a permit and a business license. 

What’s more, he was told his little portable studio was, under Berkeley code, too big to be considered for an “object on sidewalk permit,” Rutchick said. He was also scolded for allowing the booth to obstruct motorist’s line of vision, something Rutchick said was an honest mistake.

But Rutchick, who has taken pictures most of his life and currently runs the Berkeley Photo Center, loves making the portraits and wasn’t ready to hang up his cameras. 

So, he wrote to his elected officials and explained his case. 

“Many of the people I photograph are homeless, or are living at or near the poverty level. Others are from all walks of life,’’ he explained. “Each week I deliver back a set of three fiber prints, at no charge, to each of my subjects from the previous week's session. In many cases, these photographs are the only formal portraits they have had since they were children.” 

Rutchick, who has made about 120 portraits so far, explained that “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.” 

He gained the support of Berkeley City Councilmembers Kriss Worthington and Ben Bartlett, who worked with the city attorney on amending the permitting process to give Rutchick and other artists the ability to obtain the needed permits. 

The “access to the arts” ordinance went before the Berkeley City Council last week and was approved. The ordinance allows for street permits for artists and musicians interested in leading art shows, art galleries, photography shoots and related events to set up in public spaces if they follow certain guidelines. 

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

Rutchick, who had never even been to a city council meeting before he took on the city, was happy about the outcome. 

“Well, I did it,’’ he said in an email the morning after the vote. “I created a whole new code for artists.” 

He said he’ll continue the photo project and hopes he doesn’t have a run-in with City Hall again.  

“That may be the end of my activism for a while.”