At SAAM: David Levinthal’s Curious Photographs

The photographs of David Levinthal are utterly peculiar, American curiosities. For the past 40 years, he has been fastidiously arranging toy soldiers, Barbie dolls, baseball figurines and other vintage playthings in elaborate dioramas, then turning his camera on them with such a shallow depth of field that the finished pictures defy all connection to their subjects’ original proportions.

It’s not that his pictures trick the eye into thinking that the plastic dolls are real (although at a glance you would be forgiven for assuming so). Levinthal’s particular gift is in plainly showing you that each scene isn’t real — and still eliciting a genuine emotional reaction.

Like a puppeteer working the strings of a marionette, Levinthal’s focus on the cutesy thingness of his models makes his work that much more enchanting, enigmatic and likely to get stuck in your head. Add to this his choice of subjects — sluggers, cowboys, war heroes and babes — and Levinthal becomes something like a manufacturer of golden-age nostalgia for the American mind.

“American Myth & Memory: David Levinthal Photographs” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum is a Jungian dive into the subconscious of mid-century America. It’s warped, it’s charming, it’s totally delusionary and a little perverted. And it’s well worth seeing before it closes on Oct. 14.

Levinthal owes a lot to Edward Hopper, who, perhaps more than anyone (other than the Coca-Cola Company), codified the aesthetic of American nostalgia. Hopper is in many ways the only elite American painter in the Western canon prior to the 1950s whose subject matter was the stuff of America itself: landscapes, people, architecture, furniture.

His work looked American not in concept — not because his brushstrokes were vigorous — but literally. His buildings were large panes of glass and concrete, his downtown streets were lined with barber poles and his figures dressed like Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Then there was his way of painting, with dramatic, warm light and blocky, soft-edged shapes, which acted as a hazy filter to images that were otherwise crystal clear.

More than anything, though, Hopper captured an almost unbearable sense of longing in his work, his figures almost universally solitary, staring into some distant nowhere.

Levinthal utilizes a lot of Hopper’s visual codes of light, tone, softness and figural characterization. But Levinthal only began his work in the 1970s, at which point these subjects and images were already distant relics. And he’s doing it with toys.

The exhibition is broken into a number of subjects: History, Modern Romance, American Beauties, Barbie, Baseball, Wild West. A lot of space and attention is devoted to his Western series — Cowboys and Indians, like my dad played in the 1950s — a subject that could be explored endlessly as a vessel for anything from colonialism to toxic masculinity.

But I’m less taken with them, as Levinthal here tends to manipulate his images to effect something too pseudo-lifelike. But they don’t really seem real. So I prefer the conceit that they are obviously toys to an attempted illusion of realism.

His best work by far is in his Barbie and American Beauty series, not least because the toy-ifying of women in American culture is the most poignant marriage of his medium to its content. Unfortunately — and I know this is a terrible follow-up thought — they are also just a joy to look at. You at once recognize them as dolls, but you’re also quite earnestly attracted to the images, as naturally as to a photo of Rita Hayworth.

They have a kind of technicolor glow, like cake icing, but mellowed adoringly through Levinthal’s lens. It’s a funny window into the beautiful nightmare of being a woman in the 1950s.

This work is also a testament to the power and influence of the camera. It rather shames the notion of photography as a documentary medium. As Levinthal reveals it, more clearly than any photographer I have ever seen, it is a profoundly biased and manipulative tool.

It’s sort of amazing how iconic Levinthal’s pictures feel, despite their obvious kitsch. From across the room, you see the profile of a black convertible town car, though only the front wheel is in focus. A cotton-puff of pink is all that defines a figure in the backseat. It is instantly recognizable as Jackie Kennedy moments before her husband, JFK, was assassinated.

But the image is not really based on any single image that ever existed. We recognize this scene as a composite of every photograph, video, movie, and documentary we’ve ever seen about that day over the past half-century. It’s like looking at an echo of a memory.


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