Thursday, May 04, 2006

Toy Photographer Spotlight: David Levinthal

I was reading the Chronicle a couple of weeks ago and on the front page of the Lifestyle section were these photographs of these old toy figures. I was immediately captivated. I read on and found they were the work of David Levinthal. I would have to say that Mr. Levinthal is one of, if not the, originator of toy photography. As you can see, his work is timeless. It would really be interesting to see his work applied to modern Japanese Toy Mecha!!

Toy soldiers, plastic cowboys, Barbie dolls -- what could be more simple and innocent? Well, they're not when photographer David Levinthal gets through with them.
Excerpts taken from the San Francisco Chronicle, written by Kenneth Baker, Chronicle Art Critic on April 15th, 2006:

In 1977 New York photographer David Levinthal collaborated with his pal and fellow Yale alumnus Garry Trudeau on a book titled "Hitler Moves East." Long out of print, now a collector's item worth more than 10 times its cover price, the book gave an account in words and pictures of the Nazis' disastrous Eastern Front campaign.

"When the book came out," Levinthal said, "so many people looked at the pictures and thought they were actual war photographs. Bookstores initially put it in the history section."

This sort of anecdote makes a critic's heart sink. It confirms how carelessly people look. Surely any visitor to the small survey of Levinthal's work at Palo Alto's Stellar-Somerset Gallery will recognize the several prints from "Hitler Moves East" as pictures staged with toy soldiers.

Context will help.

Selections from later projects by Levinthal -- especially the "Barbie" series (Barbie the doll, not Klaus Barbie, the Nazi war criminal) -- look plainly like pictures of toys.

Before he began work on "Hitler Moves East," Levinthal said when we spoke in Palo Alto last week, "I was still doing some other work -- my sort of Lee Friedlander-esque photographs on the street. But seeing how I could draw such a strong emotional response from something that was essentially fabricated, I just kept pursuing that."

Since Levinthal made his name -- he has shown all over the world and had a retrospective at the International Center for Photography in 1997 -- various other artists, such as Laurie Simmons and the Los Angeles team of Davis and Davis, have come to prominence using toys or dolls to enact enigmatic scenes.

Levinthal's work fit handily into Zeitgeist exhibitions of the '80s and early '90s that mulled the manipulated character of images made for broadcast and other modes of mass distribution. It also made a bridge between work in which photographers posed themselves, such as Cindy Sherman's early '70s "Film Stills" and Lucas Samaras' hand-altered self-portrait "Auto-Polaroids" and recent sensations such as Elena Dorfman's studies of life-size sex dolls and their owners and Gregory Crewdson's artifice-heavy tableaux.

Levinthal's pictures, especially those from the "Wild West" and "Baseball" series, look almost like folk art alongside the technically slick efforts of Crewdson or Dorfman.

Levinthal acknowledges memories of his childhood, spent in and around his native San Francisco in the '50s, as a source of some of his work. But most of it depends, he said, "on my philosophy that toys are not benign. They're really about the period they came from and the socialization of that period."

He has collected toys and models for years with an eye to their use in photographs, and his acquisitions have taken him to extremes. In 1996, the UC Berkeley Art Museum presented his series titled "Mein Kampf." It uses toy Nazis that he found in Germany to envision scenes of the Holocaust and other Nazi atrocities. He decided that the current gallery show could not accommodate enough images from the series for it to come across properly.

"I really think my work has a narrative quality," Levinthal said, "both within each picture and within each series. Someone once said to me that when they looked at my pictures they imagined the moment before and the moment after. The photograph is sort of the middle term in a narrative. But I always tell people there's less in my photographs than meets the eye. ... There's one picture in the 'Wild West' series" -- not in the Stellar-Somerset show -- "that has a cowboy shot from the back as he's walking down an archway. And people would look at it and say, 'Oh, that's Gary Cooper in "High Noon.' " And that wasn't my intention, but it was to invite the viewer fill out the narrative."

His "XXX" series moves that invitation to the level of provocation. To make it, Levinthal used a series of female sex dolls, no more than a foot tall, with trappings that suggest some sadomasochistic exercise. Using a large-format Polaroid camera, he gave them a creepy hyperreality with soft focus, cropping and ambiguous scale.

When I asked Levinthal whether he resorts to toys and models because he finds the subjects that interest him unavailable in reality, he said, "Well, since I started off with photographs of World War II and moved on to cowboys, certainly neither of those was available to shoot."

Then he added a revealing anecdote: "When I was doing the XXX series, where I live in New York, down the block is a lap-dancing club, and one of the lap dancers worked as an intern at the Polaroid studio," he said. "And she said to me, 'I'd like to talk to my boss about you bringing the camera to the club and photographing the women there.' The thought resonated with me for about a millisecond. Part of it is that I've always dealt with that fine line between fantasy and reality, so it's not that these figures are always inaccessible, but in some way they almost become more real by becoming less real."

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