Orie Rutchick has only lived in South Berkeley for three years, but he feels very at home there.
“I’m not very extroverted, but here I say ‘Hi’ to everybody I walk by and I try to get a reaction, even if somebody’s head is down,” he said this week. “And people respond like they’ve never been asked before.”
Many locals have got to know Rutchick. They call him the Picture Man, he says.
That’s because, since October, Rutchick, a photographer who ran a photography center in Minneapolis before moving to the Bay Area, has been setting up a mobile portrait studio in the neighborhood, sometimes outside Alcatraz Market, on Alcatraz at California, more regularly outside the Berkeley Drop-In Center at Adeline and Harmon.
His subjects tend to come to him, intrigued by the set-up, asking if they can pose for him. After initially giving people a dollar or two to take their picture – many of his subjects are experiencing homelessness or are down on their luck — he also provides them with something arguably more valuable: three black-and-white portraits.
A professional portrait is not something many of his subjects have sat for, or perhaps the last time they did was when they graduated high school or got married. For Rutchick, the meaningful aspect of this initiative is that the person gets something tactile they need to come back and pick up from him — or from the Drop-In Center where he leaves a stack of prints every week. They can hold on to them or, perhaps, send one to a family member who hasn’t seen them for a while.
“This isn’t something that is gone with a power switch,” the photographer says, referring to the ephemeral nature of digital images.
Rutchick’s portrait project is one of several he’s been working on since coming to Berkeley. He shot a series on corner markets, as well as one on “the spaces between” houses. His approach is deliberate and he likes to set himself defined parameters, both quantitative and aesthetic. The restrictions include handicapping himself, he says.
“I shoot with a large camera, with film, and a very small aperture. And I use continuous light… very little light. I want my subjects to almost emerge out of the black,” he says.
Rutchick brings just 4 to 5 rolls of films to the tent-like mobile studio to produce the three portraits per subject. He prints them in the kitchen sink of his Victorian home nearby and hangs them out to dry over his bathtub.
Rutchick, who offers classes through his business, the Berkeley Photo Center, has a goal: to collect 100 portraits he is happy with and to exhibit them locally. So far he has about 55. He says the project is one of the most valuable things he has done and he hopes it works two ways.
“It’s a reciprocal proposition. My intent is to work at portraiture and get better. And I give my subjects something that they never would have had otherwise.”
The short film, top, was shot and edited by Berkeleyside contributor Chris Polydoroff.