step back
thoughts following George Saunders' thoughts on sentimentality

George Saunders places the following images in front of us and asks, 'What makes one sentimental, the other genuine?'

two images of deer in a summer scene; one a supposedly sentimental painting, the other a photograph

We know one comes 'from life', but that doesn't seem to mean much. Isn't that true for both of them?

The unfocused leaves, partially obscuring the shot, help make the photo more 'real', I think. The fact that the deer are in motion also points towards a real complication in life. All things, living or otherwise, are always moving, getting in the way of one another, escaping the lens.

I ask myself how I might alter the painting if I was asked to make it less sentimental. If there has to be more than one deer, I'd make it so they're not such a brazenly happy family. We should question how they're related, whether they always travel together. I think about having one deer lying down at an angle that makes us question whether it's alive, or if there's something wrong with it. Is it resting, or unwell?

All strikes against the sentimental seem to involve darkening the scene, hinting that something could be amiss. Could we complicate things further - smudge a few grey clouds into the sky; give the trees the first touches of an encroaching blight; introduce a few unfocused leaves into the foreground, helping to spoil our view?

What happens if we remove the deer entirely, from the painting and then from the photograph? What, then, would these pieces be 'about'? The photo would, I suspect, feel markedly strange; a partially obscured shot of a seemingly empty glade. The subject would be unclear. We might ask ourselves what the photographer was trying to capture, and might they have arrived at that moment a moment too late? Whatever they wanted to fix in time, is it now somewhere just outside the frame? Was it a breathing, living thing, constantly on the move?

Where have those deer ended up - the ones we shuffle and alter and take from these images, reaching for something beyond the sentimental? Where have they gone, and were they ever truly there?