March 01, 2011 — “Were it not for the pain to be found in the wider world, I might not have sought sanctuary in the confinement of my own, where I discovered an endless supply of the raw materials needed to make the images I do,” Dominic Rouse says. “I find reality a little unsettling so I have created a disturbing world in order to make this one appear less unnerving. The artist is charged with the duty of exposing our many grievous faults and failures, with dredging up to the light our dark and dangerous dreams for the purpose of improvement; to see the light we must first acknowledge that we are in the dark.”
Rouse grew up in Suffolk, England in the idyllic village of Long Melford, which was a wealthy center of England’s wool trade in the Tudor era (1457-1603). “Many who became rich off the backs of sheep built large churches to ease their consciences and passages into the afterlife,” Rouse says, whose interest in antiquated buildings, and Gothic architecture in particular, undoubtedly began with these wonderful old structures that dotted his childhood landscapes.
He became interested in photography at 14 when Jerry Reeves, a retired journalist, for whom he did summer jobs working in his garden, lent him a Kodak Brownie 127 camera. Rouse bought a Paterson developing tank and processed films in his bathroom, much to the annoyance of the rest of his family.
His photographic career began at 16, working as a press photographer for weekly and evening newspapers in the east of England. After five years of repetitive jobs he looked for a way out of the drudgery, feeling the urge to explore wider photographic horizons, Rouse says, “I got it into my head that I needed to be able to shoot color film. In those days press work was entirely black and white.”
Rouse applied to a three-year vocational photography course in the north of England in the town of Blackpool, and was accepted. This is where his love affair with photography truly began. “To this day I still refer back to the briefs and working practices we were encouraged to adopt,” he says. He started to use large format cameras in Blackpool and began to experiment with multiple exposure techniques using masks in front of and behind the lens as well as in the dark slide.
The arrival of affordable computers with processing power necessary to manipulate images has merely increased the number of options he finds available. As he states in his essay, A Painter’s Freedom—A Defense of the Digital Photograph: “The freedom of design now afforded by the computer has released photographers from the monotonous recording of the world as it is and offers them the opportunity to inherit those values so jealously guarded by the artists of earlier times. Paradoxically, these technologies allow us to fashion imagery which those old painters would more readily recognize as art, facets of our imaginations in which the transparency and negative are as the pencil and charcoal studies of yesteryear; merely preparations for a more complex and contemplative piece.”
Though he admires the work of photographers like Joel-Peter Witkin and Robert and Shana Parkeharrison, Rouse admits, “I am not inspired by the work of other photographers. I feel more kinship with artists, Magritte, Goya, Dürer and Bosch than I do with photographers [like], Steichen, Stieglitz, Adams and Weston.”
Rouse says his ideas for a project emanate from his imagination in the same way that everyone else’s does. “As with all human faculties the imagination can be cultivated and I am indebted to my teachers for encouraging me to mine and exploit my potential, one that we all possess and could use far better than we do if we were only encouraged to do so.”
He started using 35mm cameras on his earlier newspaper assignments but graduated to larger formats when he became a commercial photographer. Until recently he was shooting 120mm film with a Bronica SQA for his fine art work. Sony has given him one of their digital cameras, the NEX-5 with HD video capabilities, which he is now happily using. Rouse says, “Not having to process and scan film is a luxury that has certainly sped up my rate of production.”
Rouse says, “I haven’t consciously attempted to emulate the settings of a theatre or film set in my montages, but I can see the similarities. I am lucky to have traveled to various parts of the world in Asia, the Americas and Europe where I have discovered interesting locations just begging to be a part of an image.”
The early backgrounds in Rouse’s photographs were usually a single transparency, but now they are often extensive montages made quite separately from the figures they contain. “If there is a building that I see on my travels that I think will be of interest, I photograph it, using primarily Fuji D100 color reversal film, make a scan on a Howtek D4500 high-resolution drum scanner, then archive the image in the computer and keep returning to it until I have found it a ‘home.’ ” Backgrounds are often composed long before the main central figure(s) are added. Rouse uses iMaginator, a low-cost image processing software to create montage prints.
Rouse doesn’t make his own prints. He e-mails his digital files (RGB grayscale TIFFs) from Thailand, where he has lived since 2003, to one of his London printmakers—either Lighthouse Darkroom or Michael Dyer Associates. They write the digital print files to 4 x 5 or 8 x 10-inch negative material and make thiocarbamide-toned silver gelatin prints for me using Ilford Warm Tone paper. Rouse says, “It would be difficult for me to work in Thailand without the ease of communication that the Internet offers.
Apart from this, I don’t need anything special—just a computer and a camera. Thailand, though not fully up to speed with the West, is developing fast and most things are available with a little searching.”
Working in black and white, Rouse hasn’t had to grapple with the color-management genie. He initially tried to make his own inkjet prints, but couldn’t get the results he wanted, which is why he looked to the darkroom for an answer. That was several years ago—digital printers, inks and papers have improved greatly since then. He recently had pigment ink prints made by his London labs and says the inkjet prints are very impressive. However, he still leans toward traditional alternatives, because he enjoys the synergy produced by blending analog and digital processes.
Rouse says he does not make a conscious effort to keep up with all the latest technology developments. He was never interested in photographic equipment beyond its purely utilitarian purpose. “I can only tell you that the digital realm has made it possible for rank amateurs to produce consistently competent results, which are reducing the perceived value of good photography and making it increasingly difficult to make a living from the profession,” Rouse comments. “But I am probably just another dinosaur resigned to my own extinction.”
In talking about marketing his work, Rouse quotes the American artist, Jasper Johns. “To be an artist you have to give up everything, including the desire to be a good artist.” He professes to be “absolutely useless” when it comes to marketing his own work.
“Experience teaches us that the most successful photographers are rarely the best,” Rouse comments. “Usually they are men and women who blend an average talent with a burning desire for recognition. Success, if you desire it, is opportunity multiplied by luck and desire in surplus to existence. Popularity has limited attractions, as there seems to be little advantage in being the darling of ignorance. However, putting cynicism to one side, one cannot escape the impression that the Internet was invented especially with photographers in mind. Has there ever been a more convenient way for photographers to present their work to a global audience? The few marketing successes I have had can be directly attributed to the existence of my Web site.”
Rouse is currently working on a series of commercial projects and the fine art work is on the back burner for a while. He says, “The bank manager is becoming restless, as is my wife.”
Portfolios of Rouse’s inventive photographs as well as information on his DVD and videos of his work can be found at www.lenswork.com and www.domini
Paul Slaughter is a world-traveled photographer and writer, living in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Paul specializes in location and fine art photography. An avid jazz lover, he has an extensive photographic collection of the jazz greats. His book of classic jazz greats, Paul Slaughter / Jazz Photographs 1969-2010, has been published. You can view portfolios of Paul’s work at www.slaughterphoto.com.