Toy Story

Photo: David Levinthal

A cowboy struts outside a saloon. A curvaceous woman with glossy red lips poses suggestively in the sand. A soldier in combat wades through waist-deep snow. These are the subjects that people David Levinthal’s photographs. But take a closer look. These subjects are not people -- they’re tiny toys arranged to depict real life. Levinthal, ’70, uses the ambiguity between reality and artifice to make his audience do a double-take.

Playing with toys is therefore serious business for photographer David Levinthal. In fact, it is his only business. For more than 20 years, he has ingeniously staged 4-inch-tall figures in intricately designed dioramas -- and in the process he has made headlines across the art world.

Levinthal’s latest exhibition, Barbie Millicent Roberts: An Original, opens this October in Santa Monica in conjunction with the publication of a book of the same name. The 20-by-24 Polaroid close-ups of Barbie will undoubtedly stir much interest during their nationwide tour -- as have his eight previous series. They range in subject from the isolation of urban life (Modern Romance) to the Holocaust (Mein Kampf) to racism (Blackface) to the mythic frontier (The Wild West).

Levinthal’s career in photography started traditionally enough. As a native Californian, he made images of the landscape in the style of Ansel Adams and Edward Weston. But when he went to Yale graduate school to study photography, he switched to a smaller camera and decided to explore photography in a studio. He started by trying to recreate images that had been playing in his head since childhood. He bought a small collection of toy soldiers at a department store and began staging battles with them. Soon he was haunting the local hobby shop, buying tiny artifacts. One day, he brought home a model bridge and placed it in the middle of a battle scene. Then he set it alight and photographed it. He had become engaged by a world of toys.

Coincidentally, a Yale classmate, Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau, was researching his thesis project, a fictional biography of a Luftwaffe pilot named Erich Becker. The publishers of Doonesbury saw Levinthal’s war photos and suggested the two collaborate on a book. Three-and-a-half years later, in 1977, their book, Hitler Moves East: A Graphic Chronicle, 1941-43, was published, with photos by Levinthal and text by Trudeau.

“Ever since I began working with toys, I have been intrigued with the idea that these seemingly benign objects could take on such incredible power and personality simply by the way they were photographed,” Levinthal says. “I began to realize that by carefully selecting the depth of field and making it narrow, I could create a sense of movement and reality that was in fact not there.” For example, one photograph in Hitler Moves East shows a tank coming over a bridge. The tip of the gun is in focus and the tank is out of focus. That small detail creates a sense that the tank is moving. Through such constant experimentation, Levinthal honed the techniques that allowed him to breathe life into these inanimate objects.

Hitler Moves East became a cult classic among young artists, but it was six more years before Levinthal would devote himself to a career in photography. He earned a management degree from MIT in 1981, founded a Bay Area public relations firm specializing in high tech and squeezed photography into his spare time. But he sold his company in 1983, and this gave him the financial independence to move to New York and become a full-time photographer. His first major exhibit was at UC-San Diego in 1985. Today, his work is in the collections of more than 35 museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, The Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., and the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. Last year, New York’s International Center of Photography held a Levinthal retrospective.

Levinthal says that much of his work is a response to popular culture, especially film noir and television. His family was one of the first in his neighborhood to have a color set. Watching such shows as Combat! and Twelve O’Clock High every week, Levinthal, along with many of his generation, imbibed a set of small-screen mythologies that colored his perception of daily reality. As a result, Levinthal’s work involves artifice -- whether it’s the cowboy images of the West, the “action” photos of the Eastern Front during World War II or the iconography of sexuality. “I set things up in an artificial context and arrange them in such a way that we’re able to see, simultaneously, the artificiality and the reality of it.”

This double evocation of the fake and the real gives Levinthal’s work an exciting edge, says Christopher Benfey, a contributor to the online magazine Slate. “I think David’s work is strongest when the viewer goes back and forth between the trumped up and the trompe-l’oeil. It’s that hesitation we have when we wonder if these are Hitler’s troops moving East or if are they toy soldiers,” says Benfey. “We don’t live in a time that’s in love with ambiguity. People want things crystal clear, and David’s work forces us to confront that ambiguity.”

Levinthal’s large Polaroid Camera resembles a chest x-ray machine on wheels, complete with enormous bellows. It may be ungainly, but it’s very interactive, says Levinthal, who collaborates with John Rudder, a Polaroid technician, to make his images. “I can get a print in a minute and a half,” Levinthal says. “I can change a figure a quarter of an inch and can get an entirely different look.”

When he’s not working at the Polaroid studio, the soft-spoken bachelor relaxes at his Chelsea loft in New York, which he shares with thousands of toys and models. His favorite toy stores are in New York, Vienna and Mountain View. He can often be found browsing and buying, although seldom with a specific image in mind. “I try not to have preconceived ideas about what I’m going to do with the figures, because most of the time they will take you someplace you might not ordinarily go,” Levinthal says.

For example, Mein Kampf, he says, began as a series of portraits of German toy soldiers. That didn’t work, so he put the figures in other settings, like marching in front of the Brandenburg Gate. Later, he created a photograph of three women as seen from over the shoulder of an SS officer. It was an echo of an image he had seen over and over again in his research: women being herded across a field at the Birkenau concentration camp on their way to the crematorium. This prompted Levinthal to look more closely at other Holocaust imagery and incorporate it in the series. Similarly, Blackface, a series of close-ups of black memorabilia, was originally an attempt to reinterpret D.W. Griffith’s film Birth of a Nation, but Levinthal decided against reproducing tableaux and finally shot the artifacts standing alone in all their stark racism.

Levinthal’s latest work, Barbie, is probably his most straightforward. He used very few props and, working with a stylist, treated the series as a kind of mini-fashion show. “I approached the Barbie book as a cross between [photographers] Irving Penn and Richard Avedon,” says Levinthal.

The result, as in Levinthal’s other work, is an uneasy ambiguity. “It’s clear that there is always an ominous overtone in David’s work,” says Patty Hickson, assistant curator of the San Jose Museum of Art, where Levinthal’s Barbie show will be exhibited next summer. “You almost feel like you could put real people in place of the figures -- that the toys are just stand-ins. It’s comforting and unsettling at the same time.”

Blake Hallanan, ’76, is a freelance writer living in San Francisco.