Photographer David Levinthal has made a career out of photographing toys. His collection of miniature action figures — which he shoots up close, often against lifelike dioramas — includes athletes, soldiers, office workers, bathing beauties, cowboys and Indians, religious icons and caricatures of African Americans. He examines such deep themes as sex, race, war, politics and religion as if under a microscope, simultaneously pulling us closer and pushing us further from the subject.
The proximity that is a hallmark of Levinthal’s pictures allows us to see the plastic seams of his subjects, even as it provides a kind of detachment from the uncomfortable subject matter.
A selection of Levinthal’s military-themed photos, dating from the 1970s to this year, is on view at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in “War Games.” Part of a larger gift to the museum from the artist, the images are drawn from several distinct bodies of his work and feature representations of scenes from the American West, the more recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and World War II (including several from Levinthal’s groundbreaking 1977 book “Hitler Moves East,” created in collaboration with “Doonesbury” cartoonist Garry Trudeau).
With the exception of Levinthal’s images from the series “Mein Kampf” — which include Holocaust scenes of naked corpses, mass graves and executions — there’s a coolness to his images of war. His toy cowboys and Indians and soldiers were made to be played with, and so we feel as if we’re watching at a safe remove from the events, even when there is blood, as in a photo from the “I.E.D.” series that depicts a contemporary soldier with a grievous head wound. (Yes, they now make toy soldiers in modern desert camouflage. Two of them can be seen on patrol, against the backdrop of a Saddam Hussein poster.)
That sense of a game dissipates with the Holocaust images. After all, toy companies don’t make death camp action figures, forcing Levinthal to repurpose ordinary dolls to stand in for concentration camp victims. Here, there’s no point of reference to connect us to the familiar; the images have a somber reality that belies their surreality.
Interestingly, someone does makes Hitler figurines. There’s one in the show, and its creepiness is magnified by the incongruity of its very existence.
The sense of play — of war unfolding as a game — is only one way in which Levinthal’s images work. The earliest pictures in the exhibition show a sequence in which the artist unwraps a box of World War II soldiers and sets them up on a table. “War Games” also references pop-cultural representations of conflict — from first-person-shooter video games to Westerns and war movies to documentary photographs of actual war by photographers such as Robert Capa. Levinthal uses a shorthand vocabulary of what war looks like to question our unquestioned assumptions.
How do those of us who have never fought know what fighting feels like, except by pretending?
Of course, “War Games” isn’t about just fighting, but also about dying. That’s the sub-subtext here. It’s a point that’s all too easy to forget in a culture in which video games like “Call of Duty” let you hit reset after you’ve been killed.
For the most part, there isn’t much death in “War Games.” Apart from the deeply disturbing “Mein Kampf” images, the vast majority of Levinthal’s photographs of toy soldiers depict strategic combat maneuvers: marching, creeping, crawling. (One rare exception in the World War II images is an untitled shot of soldiers being blown up, with one of them seen flying through the air.)
Paradoxically, the “Mein Kampf” images are almost too realistic. That’s a problem with other examples of Levinthal’s work. His photos of hyper-realistic Japanese sex dolls also are more than vaguely unsettling.
We need to romanticize uncomfortable things. Does Levinthal have to show us death to remind us of it? There will be plenty of it anyway when the Corcoran opens the big summer survey exhibition “War/Photography: Photographs of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath” next month.
Toy companies may not manufacture dead action figures. But in “War Games,” they are a ghostly presence.
If you look closely at the image at right, you can just make out the pin that’s holding up the German soldier who has been knocked off his feet in David Levinthal’s untitled 1975 image from the book “Hitler Moves East.” Explosive flash powder provides a nice puff of smoke; a mound of potting soil planted with grass seed creates the illusion of the Russian steppes.
Levinthal learned to create other illusions in what he calls his “fabricated reality” through trial and error.
Gold Medal flour and a can of compressed air, just off camera, make “snow.” White sand is used to hide the bases of action figures so they don’t look like they’re standing in a puddle of plastic.
As for the eerie “night vision” effect used in some of Levinthal’s “I.E.D.” images, that was accomplished by the use of green cellophane, illuminated by high-intensity flashlights waved by the artist’s young son.
— Michael O'Sullivan