GRAFTON, N.D. – After 45 years of crafting professional portraits, faces still fascinate Roch Tweten.
The owner of Tweten’s Photography in Grafton has taken hundreds of thousands of pictures of faces, some famous and others unknown outside of their circle of family and friends.
Well-known or not, Tweten, whose first name is pronounced “rock,” makes his customers feel comfortable with having their pictures taken. Together with his signature lighting style, he believes that sets his photos apart.
“He puts people at ease, and that comes out,” said Mary Kartes, Tweten’s assistant.
For Tweten, his customers aren’t just another face in the crowd.
“The shape of the face and the structure, I think it’s interesting,” Tweten said.
After 45 years of taking portraits, lighting also still intrigues him.
“I like to play with light and shadow,” Tweten said.
Tweten, a 1974 Grafton High School graduate, moved back to the community after taking photography, television production and advertising classes at Bemidji State University and, later, working for a Texas church directory company.
Opening a photography studio in his hometown in 1979 was a challenge “to see if I could do it,” Tweten said. He could and did, now taking portraits of some children whose parents he photographed earlier in his career.
“I was doing a session and the mom’s sitting on the couch, and she said ‘You took my picture in 1982,’” Tweten said.
Besides taking portraits of people in Grafton and the surrounding region, Tweten has taken hundreds of photos of country and rock 'n roll stars who have performed at the Chester Fritz Auditorium in Grand Forks, as well as other concert venues.
He started taking portraits for the Chester Fritz after going to a concert and seeing the photos of stars hanging on the walls. He asked if he could take photos of some artists who performed there.
The first two photographs he was assigned were country music singer Ricky Skaggs and entertainer Red Skelton. After taking those portraits, Linda Rohde, then Chester Fritz Auditorium manager, asked Tweten to take 10 more.
“I did those, and she said 'You can do some more.' And then she said ‘You can do them all from now on,’” Tweten said.
He estimates he has taken about 750 photos for the Chester Fritz.
The portraits are a variety of musical acts from Johnny Cash to Bette Midler and from Merle Haggard to Mick Jagger. He has photographed comedians like Jay Leno and Garrison Keillor and illusionist David Copperfield.
In the early days, Tweten was nervous taking photos of some of the legends. However, most of them were unpretentious, including Johnny Cash, whose portrait he took after a 1986 performance at the Fritz.
“I was in the basement setting up and this tall guy in black comes up and sticks out his hand and says ‘Hi, I’m Johnny Cash.' I said “I know you are,’” Tweten recalled with a laugh.
The biggest challenge for Tweten when taking the entertainers' portraits was that many of them were in a hurry to leave after they finished their performance.
“You had to be fast. Some of them were there for 45 seconds,” Tweten said.
He made the most of that time, shooting portraits that not only the Chester Fritz appreciated, but also the entertainers. Some have requested copies. After Red Skelton saw the 8-by-10 portrait Tweten took, for example, he ordered a 20- by 24-inch photo to hang over his fireplace. Meanwhile, Don Williams used a Tweten photo on his album cover.
Taking photos of famous entertainers hasn’t changed Tweten’s attitude toward accommodating his hometown customers, Kartes said.
"Roch does tons for this community,” she said. For example, when a family gathered in Grafton for a funeral of a loved one, Tweten got ready on a moment’s notice to take their photo.
Besides family and individual portraits, Tweten also shoots annual school photos in Walsh and Pembina counties.
He has taken thousands of photos, but at 64, he can't picture retiring. He figures he’d be bored after a long weekend of not taking photographs, let alone weeks. And he enjoys his work too much to put his camera gear in storage.
“It’s not like it’s a job,” Tweten said.