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At the steps of Dwinelle Hall, photographer Christopher Irion peers into his traveling PhotoBooth at one of hundreds of subjects he shot on Thursday and Friday, as others wait their turn. (Peg Skorpinski photos)
 

A snapshot of diversity, Berkeley-style
In a two-day photo session, hundreds of staff, faculty, and students line up to say ‘cheese’ . . . . and ‘thank you’

| 09 April 2008

If you closed your eyes last Thursday or Friday, you might easily have mistaken Dwinelle Plaza for the site of a Vogue fashion shoot. “That’s great, love that,” cooed Christopher Irion, a San Francisco-based portrait photographer. “Beautiful, yes. Do that one more time.”

The illusion would have been fleeting, though. After only a minute or two, Irion would proffer his thanks and call out a number, a signal to advance the human assembly line and admit the next subject into his traveling “PhotoBooth,” a makeshift studio rigged with a vertically sliding holster through which Irion points his camera. And it wasn’t languid supermodels he was shooting but staff, faculty, students, and alumni keen to enshrine their Berkeley connection for posterity.


Hundreds of members of the campus community — staff, faculty, students, alumni, and a couple who live in the chancellor’s residence — lined up to express their feelings for Cal last week. Among the Berkeley boosters, clockwise from top left, were Frederic Tubach, an emeritus professor of German literature; Jane Paris, a college adviser; Mary Catherine and Robert Birgeneau; and EECS’s Mary Byrnes, who — while looking forward to retirement — recalled with fondness her three decades at Berkeley.  

Over the course of two days, more than 400 eager Cal boosters lined up to be part of a University Relations-sponsored effort to convey what one subject, Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, called “the majestic tapestry” of people who make Berkeley what it is. Most of the black-and-white photos — larger ones, taken by Irion in January, are posted around campus — will be included in a 72-foot-long billboard to be unveiled this fall in conjunction with the launch of the campus’s 2008 capital campaign.

“Character, personality, spirit, soul,” said Irion, explaining what he was out to capture. “The trick is to get ’em before they start to think about it.”

Yet if spontaneity was the watchword once in the booth, many used the time waiting in line to ponder how to condense the Berkeley experience into 10 words or less, which the participants were asked to write on a placard and hold up as they were photographed.

Jane Paris, an adviser for the College of Letters and Sciences, had no trouble saying why she’d come to Dwinelle on Friday — “because I love Cal” — but took a few minutes to put it in writing. But she seemed satisfied with the result: “Amazing students, amazing stories. Working here makes me feel alive!”

For Mary Byrnes, a manager for the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences who’s retiring after 30 years at Berkeley, the message was all-encompassing: “Thanks, Cal, for my education, husband, employment, friends, and retirement.”

Frederic Tubach, an emeritus professor of German literature and folklore, was raised in Nazi Germany and came to Berkeley as a grad student in the 1950s. As he waited in line, he remembered the days of loyalty oaths, the Free Speech Movement, and the Reagan era — “never a dull semester,” he said — and explained why he wanted to take part in the billboard project.

“As you get older, you get more loyal to your institution,” said Tubach. “Before, I used to fight it tooth and nail. Now I’m more grateful for what it does.”

His handwritten message: “Berkeley: the most vital intellectual place.”

By Friday afternoon, so many people had turned out that a few were mistakenly turned away — though that problem was soon rectified. But the confusion wasn’t enough to dampen the school spirit of Josh Alley, the campus’s director of athletic eligibility, who eventually got his turn in the PhotoBooth. Alley, who was pushing his young son, Jack, in a stroller, said his parents had both attended Cal — he himself went to UC Santa Barbara — and that Jack would someday play tennis here.

“I grew up in Berkeley, and Jack will as well,” he said. “So to me, Berkeley is home. Cal is home.”

And there are more photo opportunities to come, said Mary Keegan, University Relations’ director of development communications. Noting “a terrific turnout for the PhotoBooth from a wide spectrum of the campus community,” she advised those still wanting to express what Cal means to them — in 10 words or less — to hold the thought.

“The PhotoBooth will be an ongoing element of the upcoming comprehensive campaign for the university,” promised Keegan, “and will be on campus many times in the next five years.”