David Levinthal’s photograph “Helicopter” practically screams “Vietnam War.” Yet there’s no literal trace of that conflict in the 2014 photograph — the most visceral image in the artist’s retrospective at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The dramatic photograph, seemingly depicting a chopper flying through a violent firefight, was actually staged in Levinthal’s New York studio.
The picture of the aircraft, silhouetted against a molten orange background, is less evocative of a real battle than a scene from “Apocalypse Now,” the 1979 Vietnam drama that stirred then-recent events into a cocktail of extravagant fantasy. Levinthal’s concern is not history, but the use of images to shape — and even fabricate — ideas of the past. That’s why this show of 74 pictures recently donated to the museum is titled “American Myth & Memory.”
Although he sometimes emulates wartime photojournalism, Levinthal has never trained a camera on real front lines. Instead, he shoots toy figurines in staged dioramas (one of which is on display here). Levinthal’s subjects include soldiers, cowboys, baseball players and pinup beauties: the heroes and heartthrobs, in molded-plastic miniature, of an idealized United States.
The artist’s not-so-secret weapon? Extremely shallow depth of field. Levinthal focuses his camera in such a way that little, if any, of the image is crisp. The resulting softness obscures the exact nature of the photos’ subjects and invites the viewer’s imagination to do most of the work. When there’s less than meets the eye — as Levinthal himself has characterized his work — the brain fills in the holes.
The show is drawn from six series: “Modern Romance,” “American Beauties,” “Wild West,” “Barbie,” “Baseball,” and “History.” Of these, only the works in “Barbie” are sharply focused. Perhaps Levinthal considers the plastic cutie too well-defined to evaporate from our collective memory. The mists of time may nearly envelop the photographer’s version of “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” but Barbie is indelible.
Levinthal studied in the early 1970s at Yale, where he met “Doonesbury” creator Garry Trudeau, his collaborator on “Hitler Moves East,” a book that used photographed dioramas to recount the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. One of his professors was photographer Walker Evans, known for his naturalistic black-and-white Depression-era portraiture. Reportedly, Evans was encouraging of his student’s work but represented a tradition that Levinthal utterly rejected.
The younger artist was soon associated with a group of artists who became known as the Pictures Generation (after a 1977 group show, “Pictures,” at the Artists Space gallery). These artists, among them Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger and Richard Prince, emphasize contrivance and challenge assumptions of photographic authenticity. Sherman constructs mock movie stills, Kruger makes advertising-like spreads and Prince rephotographs existing photos.
One thing Levinthal picked up at Yale was the Polaroid camera (something Evans also used in his later years). “American Myth & Memory” includes early work made with the mass-market SX-70, as well as many pictures produced, beginning in 1986, with a five-foot-high Polaroid rig that used 20-by-24-inch film. The artist switched to digital photography 11 years ago, only after Polaroid stopped manufacturing the large-format film.
Levinthal’s current method allows him to work on a bigger scale. Such pictures as “Helicopter,” one of the three most recent works in the show, don’t look like film stills so much as actual movies, paused for a moment on a video screen. (In fact, the photographer now creates his vignettes from video, shifting them yet another step away from physical reality.)
Digital imaging has allowed Levinthal to enlarge his vision, but it has also removed one intriguing aspect of his work. Although he pointed his camera at posed scenarios that could be photographed again and again, each Polaroid is one-of-a-kind. The patterns around the edges, where the print pulled away from the backing, are a sort of fingerprint that can’t be replicated.
Levinthal’s artistic touchstones include painter Edward Hopper and filmmaker John Ford (both aficionados of the American loner). But there seems to be an even larger influence: the photographer’s own childhood. “American Myth & Memory” asks viewers to consider how history fades into myth that can distort and deceive. Yet a boy’s recollection of his toys — that remains in perfect focus.
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Eighth and F streets NW. (202) 633-7970; www.americanart.si.edu .
Dates: Through Oct. 14.