‘Jake and Cat, Near Rhynie, Aberdeenshire’ – Elliot Caunce

‘Jake has lived off-grid in the Scottish Highlands for over 40 years with no mains electricity, water or conventional heating. “I’m the king of this place. Everyone else can fit in with me for a change”, he said.’

Jake, the subject of the portrait is photographed in what appears to be an attic or loft space, judging by the angle of the ceiling. He is lit solely by the diffused, either through the layers of dirt or from post-production editing, sky-light which is above and to his left. I would guess this is post production diffusion as the light lacks the expected blooming but remains heavily ‘blown’ in comparison to the surrounding frame.

On Jake’s crossed legs, he is sat on a stool, lies ‘Cat’. Both subjects look to their right and slightly down, their gaze averted from the camera. In front of them is a bench, located under the sky-light, covered in a vast messy array of tools, utensils, cables and paperwork. In the shadowy background we see a magazine rack fixed to the angled roofline stuffed haphazardly with papers.

I find this interesting both in it’s approach and style but also in how the text apparently ties in with the image to reinforce a perception of the subject.

Jake and ‘Cat’ are presented as self made ‘individuals’ outside of the concept and constraints of modern society. Separated by distance, being in the Scottish Highlands, but also by communication and modern conveniences as highlighted through the statement ‘no mains electricity’.

The images Rembrandt style lighting and composition, combined with the allusions to mid-late Victorian photographic practice such as the use of a skylight for lighting, lends a sense of quiet contemplation to the scene and subjects equally.

Overall the apparent goal of this portrait is to build this image of a subject who has made a considered decision to reject the modern urban lifestyle to live free of consumerist values, even going so far as to not name their cat which is often considered a sign of ownership. This concept evokes a sense of hardship, through lack of resources, simplicity and honesty through the connotation of being associated with nature and off-gird living.

I do, however, have issues with this perception.

This image creates the sense of a contemplative individual and the contextual paragraph attaches the idea of a hard work ethic required to survive in the hardships of off-grid living in the Highlands. But I feel the true personality comes through in some specifics of the quote and in the details within the frame, possibly overlooked or potentially purposefully left in as a string to pull on to unravel the narrative.

Within the frame, the disorganised paperwork and objects could equally be an indicator of their lack of importance in this work d or a sign that the owner lacks the responsibility or ability to keep them organised. Similarly the quote “I’m the king of this place”, is recognition of ownership of his possessions and environment, a sign of a sense of pride in what he is achieving and above all a sign of the subject’s desire to be in charge of his circumstances.

I also noticed several cables which appear to be charger leads for electronic devices. In itself nothing unusual but it contrasts with the personality and lifestyle we are expected to accept. Whilst “no mains electricity” doesn’t not exclude the use of mobile electronics it does infer that to the audience, especially those unfamiliar with the capability of generators.

I could go on and pick at every detail which undermines the narrative of the image and quote but I feel that by pointing at these few details we have the basis for an alternative narrative.

I am more inclined tobeleive that Jake’s choice to live remotely is to reduce the oversight of authority, neighbours or family. the lack of resources is the price he pays for the ability to call his home his realm. The physical mess is reflective of his lack of ability or desire to maintain organisation, whist the chargers most likely points to his need to be able to contact the outside world and partially his ‘true’ desire to only interact on his own terms but to stay in touch with modernity. His obvious closeness with ‘Cat’ shows his need and desire for companionship and no doubt a sense of compassion yet by not naming ‘Cat’ he effectively removes his responsibility for the cat’s web being with the ability to declare any incident or accident the animals own free will.

I feel that in this image it appears that Jake has been able to feed the photographer his won self serving narrative. the one of a noble highlander eschewing the sins of modernity and being close to nature and naturalness. This persona is reflected in the composition and execution of the image but it is the details of both the image and the caption that reveals a more accurate representation.

That representation is one of a man who wants full control over his ‘world’ and in a modern environment the only way to do that is to remove oneself from the trappings and responsibilities of an urban lifestyle. I get the impression he is most likely a selfish, combative and irresponsible individual. This impression comes from his self-titling as king, his refusal to take ownership of ‘Cat’ and the disarray of his living arrangements, along with his apparent subterfuge in regards to the electricity access in his home.

Having researched more in the origins of this photograph we learn more about Jake from further contextualisation. this further information reveals that the initial move to the Highlands was with his wife in the 1970’s after falling out with his landlord, but it is the breakdown of his marriage shortly after that I found most interesting in how I initially read the image. without having his ex-wifes side of the story we can only wonder about his true personality and her reason for leaving but I feel this is an interesting addition to my impression that he chooses to live in self imposed exile.

Image Reference



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