David Levinthal: War Games

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David Levinthal, Untitled (from Hitler Moves East), 1975.

Seeing David Levinthal's soft-focus photographs of toy soldiers and cowboys, poised again for the battles of World War II, the horrors of the Holocaust, and the rigors of Manifest Destiny, I was drawn to his picture of a half-opened package of toy soldiers, with some figures still tethered to the box by umbilical wires. This group portrait of boy-toys, taken before they were drafted into Levinthal's wars, seemed somehow full of possibility.

Levinthal is known for his photos of staged toys, especially soldiers and cowboys, but also Barbies, Japanese sex dolls, and blackface figurines. In his latest show, though, David Levinthal: War Games, at the Corcoran Gallery of Art through September 1, the curators, a group of undergraduates at the Corcoran College of Art + Design, have focused solely on his war scenes.

The exhibition begins with his work from the 1970s, when Levinthal, a graduate student in photography at Yale, met Garry Trudeau (of Doonesbury fame) and with him created Hitler Moves East – a series faux-documenting the Nazi attack on the Soviet Union, which includes Levinthal's iconic image of an exploding soldier (created with the help of powder and pins). It runs all the way to Levinthal's recent series of digital photos, titled I.E.D., about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

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David Levinthal, Untitled (from IED), 2008.

It's fascinating to see the subtle shifts in a career that, in some ways, has hardly evolved. For his first series, Levinthal imagined, in the absence of real photographic evidence, how the Russian steppes must have appeared to the invading Germans. These pictures have surprising pathos. You feel for those faux freezing men. The same holds true for Levinthal's giant cowboy Polaroids. The hazy, orange-tinged images evoke something mythic – the feeling of being on the range. 

In other works, though, Levinthal enters a world of already-photographed scenes whose look he tries to match. One recent Civil War reconstruction mimics an Alexander Gardner photo. And Levinthal's depictions of the Iraq War are colored green because that's the way the photo-documentary images (taken through night-vision lenses) look. The focus isn't on the soldiers but on the visual shorthand that tells us what war we're looking at. Green means Iraq; ovens mean Holocaust. It's a cold logic.

As Levinthal has aged, his stance toward his toys seems less childlike. Baudelaire wrote, “The overriding desire of most little brats … is to get at and see the soul of their toys.” Once upon a time, Levinthal played with his toys as if to get at their souls. Now he plays with them as if he's certain they have none.