KETCHIKAN — Jeff Fitzwater explored small-town images, familiar characters and the art of compositing photographs for his Main Street Gallery solo exhibit, “A Rockwellian Ketchikan.”
He started with classic paintings by Norman Rockwell, famous for his Saturday Evening Post covers from the 1920s through the late 1960s. Fitzwater said he was browsing through a Seattle arts magazine when he saw an article titled, “Rock Your Inner Rockwell,” about an artist’s modern-day translation of many of Rockwell’s pieces.
“Why don’t I try that?” Fitzwater recalled thinking.
Fitzwater employed Ketchikan locals as models, and re-imagined many of Rockwell’s paintings, sometimes nearly identically, sometimes applying his own translation.
He said that he enjoyed the technical aspect of creating the prints, as many required a complex layering process.
His piece “Girl at Mirror” shows a girl gazing at her image in a large mirror, just at the age where she is leaving childhood behind, as did Rockwell’s piece of that name. He photographed the mirror first, layering in the girl’s images later.
Fitzwater said he was intrigued by the questions the girl seemed to be asking herself: “Growing up, what do I want to become? What’s beauty?”
He said he worked to make his pieces not simply retreads of Rockwell’s illustrations, but “uniquely Ketchikan.”
Fitzwater created a piece titled “The Gossips,” inspired by Rockwell’s illustration of many small portraits of townspeople talking to one another. Each pair exhibits expressions of surprise and anticipation as they share a gossipy story. The last duo exhibits chagrin to hear the story is about one of them, Fitzwater said.
He said he and his wife, Bonnie Paddock, are in the gossip chain in his piece, alongside many other locals.
Another piece he titled “A Coffee Conundrum” is set at The Green Coffee Bean Co. in Ward Cove. In that piece, a customer cannot make up his mind, while other locals languish in line.
Another features Iraq war veteran Jeremiah Tucker in a photograph based on Rockwell’s “Homecoming.” Fitzwater said he was inspired by a story Tucker told about coming under fire while on patrol in Iraq, then later finding two bullets in his laptop computer, which had been in his backpack.
All of those photograph composites were made with a layering technique, in which he takes several photos and combines the images to create the final scene he wants. He said he tried to channel Rockwell as he chose his images.
“What would Norman have illustrated if he lived here?” he said he asked himself.
One of his pieces shows a familiar Rockwell scene of a soldier receiving a tattoo. In Rockwell’s piece, two men were the models, and the soldier had a line of women’s names, each crossed out with the newest name in progress.
Fitzwater put his own twist on the scene. In his depiction, a woman tattoo artist is tattooing a woman soldier, who also sports a list of crossed-out names, but they are all male, and each of a different nationality.
He said he wanted to honor women in the military with that playful photograph.
He said the project was perfect for him because he always has enjoyed photographing people with creative portraiture.
He takes a base photo to create his composites, he said, then tweaks it and layers other images over. He said he also enjoys experimenting with light modifications.
He sees compositing as a natural extension of basic photography, since the “camera always changes reality ... it’s not really pure.”
Fitzwater said he has several people who support his projects, including Heidi Poet, a partner photographer; Kat Hindman, an assistant photographer and Claire Bartek, a professional makeup and hair artist.
In the 1980s, Fitzwater said he photographed a lot of Ketchikan High School activities, and traveled as a photographer and chaperone on a concert band trip to Australia in 1985. In about 1987, he said he started the tradition of the senior slide show at the graduation ceremony.
Fitzwater has had a broad-ranging career and education. He is a certified masseuse, as is his wife. He also was a youth pastor at the First Baptist Church and took photos for the youth events.
He left Ketchikan for several years in the 1990s, he said, to earn his a master’s degree in communications, then worked as the director of communications for a Baptist church in Texas.
Photographing weddings, writing scripts and plays and even a four-year stint as a professional puppeteer round out Fitzwater’s resume.
“I’ve always been attracted to people and the stories they tell,” he said.
The “A Rockwellian Ketchikan” exhibit will be on display through Nov. 30.