In this post I write about a photograph by Buck Ellison that I came across in Daniel Blight’s book ‘The Image of Whiteness’. I find this interesting because of the way the ideas of denotation and connotation can be utilised in analysing this image.
Blight’s book is around how photography can comment on white privilege. Buck Ellison’s photographs create staged images reflecting imagined rich white communities. In the simplistic idea of Denotation/Connotation, the simple denotation shows a young white man squats down in a meadow and looks into the camera. He is wearing shorts and a hat, and carrying a rucksack on his back with a water tube extending over his shoulder to his mouth.
Connotation allows much more variety in interpreting this image. Away from the context in which this appears in Ellison’s project and Blight’s book, there are other signs here that can be read. Biblical parallels show up in the way the figure is squatting, and the fact that the man is white and has a beard. Although he looks directly at the camera, his expression is one of thoughtfulness, as if he has been interrupted in deep contemplation. It could be seen as an interpretation of Christ in the wilderness, not dissimilar to Ivan Kramskoi’s painting ‘Christ in the Wilderness’.
However it is only an ingrained cultural interpretation based on historical images of Christ that allows us to read this figure as Christ. It is more than likely that Christ would not have looked like this at all but would more realistically had much darker features than this.
The image of Christ as a gentle white man is so embedded in western culture that interpreting a young white bearded male in this way comes much more easily than it would if the man in Ellison’s photograph was black.
Kramskoi’s painting shows Christ in a desert, whereas the scenery is much more lush and green in Ellison’s photograph. The man is surrounded by plants, including foreground, so that there is a sense of a garden here. Continuing the biblical interpretation, this could also be viewed as Adam in the garden of Eden. The proliferation of greenery is suggestive of an untouched place and again the fact that this man is white makes it easier to see this biblical interpretation.
These are not the only ways of interpreting this image. On a much more basic level this could operate just as well as a pin up, or as a calendar. There is a definite homo-erotic quality to the image as well.
Blight, D. (2019) The Image of Whiteness: Contemporary Photography and Racialization. (s.l.): Self Publish, Be Happy.