Photographer David Levinthal still plays with toys
‘The Wild West’ is open at Nester Gallery
Photographer David Levinthal has made a career playing with toys.
The artist is known for shooting realistic-looking scenes with toy soldiers, Barbie dolls and Old West figurines.
His new exhibit “The Wild West” is currently on display at the Julie Nester Gallery and sees Levinthal return to his familiar motif.
“I first photographed some cowboys when I was in graduate school,” Levinthal said during an interview with The Park Record. “I grew up in the 1950s and Westerns were a huge part of pop culture and there were so many cowboy shows on TV. And this is a subject that I kept going back to over and over again.”
An artist reception for Levinthal will be held during Park City Gallery Association’s monthly gallery stroll from 6-9p.m. on Friday, Dec. 30, at the Julie Nester Gallery, 1250 Iron Horse Drive. The event is free and open to the public, and Levinthal is looking forward to it.
“Every time I go back to the Western figures, my perspective changes,” he said. “I see different things, and after doing this for more than 40 years, I would hope my skills had increased with the dioramas and tableaus.”
One key element of Levinthal’s works is a sense of motion.
“I noticed early on that when you photograph these objects up close, the images turn soft and a little blurry, which gives the viewer a feeling of movement,” he said. “They become somewhat more realistic and that’s, what I think, has been a signature of my work.”
Levinthal was originally drawn to photography when he was a freshman at Stanford in 1966.
“The 1960s was a time for experimentation and I found myself captivated by photography and ended up becoming a studio art major instead of going to college to become a political science major, like I planned,” he said. “I initially wanted to become a constitutional lawyer, because, well, it was the ‘60s, you know.”
Photography wasn’t taught at Stanford, which intrigued Levinthal.
“That was fortuitous, because, I knew I wasn’t getting any academic credit for it,” he said. “So, I looked at it like a test of how much do I really want to do this and how motivated am I about it.”
The future photographer began taking photography classes in San Francisco from Ruth Bernhard, a contemporary of Ansel Adams and Edward Weston.
“I ended up going to graduate school at Yale, specifically because I wanted to study with [photographer] Walker Evans, who was teaching there,” Levinthal said. “That was a great experience and one of my classmates was a gentleman named Garry Trudeau, who was getting his MFA in graphic design.”
After he and future Pulitzer Prize-winner Trudeau graduated in 1973, Trudeau’s publisher suggested they do a book together.
“Gary had done his graphic design thesis on German graphics of the 1930s and 1940s and created a faux biography of a German Luftwaffe pilot by using just images and graphic symbols,” Levinthal said. “At that time, I was working with taking photographs of these toy soldiers.”
The book, titled “Hitler Moves East” and released in 1977, was the launching pad for Levinthal’s toy-photograph career.
“When I started at Yale, I was doing street photography, a la Lee Friedlander and Duane Michals,” he said. “I was taking photographs from my Chevy Vega as I drove around New Haven.”
When it came time to do his thesis, Levinthal decided to challenge himself.
“I figured that while I was going to school it behooved me to actually learn something,” he said with a laugh. “The one thing I dislike is working in a studio environment. So, I gave myself the project of working in the studio for my thesis.”
His first idea was to photograph each room in a metal Marx dollhouse, but that didn’t work out because the tin the house was made of was too reflective.
“Then I went back to the local department store and wandered through the toy section and came across these toy soldiers,” Levinthal said. “At first, I did the typical graduate-student thing and had the soldiers giftwrapped and photographed them as if they were emerging out of the wrapping.”
After setting the soldiers up against a white background, Levinthal remembered the fun he had playing with toy soldiers as a child.
“I got excited about this and spent most of my Christmas vacation putting these figures on the floor of my room and borrowing my youngest brother’s wooden play city,” he said. “I went to the local hobby shop and bought some trees and embellished the environment that these unpainted plastic soldiers were set up in.”
Levinthal returned to Yale the following January for his portfolio review, and noticed all his classmates came prepared with what he called “beautiful” and “overmatted” prints.
Levinthal, on the other hand, came with a collection of 400 or 500 Kodalith prints of soldiers.
“Kodalith paper was originally supposed to be just pure black and pure white for graphic artists to cut up and make paste-ups with,” he said. “If you put some water on it, you get a wonderful sepia tone. And with the toy soldiers, they all looked like old, documentary photographs.”
Levinthal was met with dead silence after passing the prints to the faculty members for review.
“There was one person, Linda Connor, who was a visiting artist who was teaching at the San Francisco Art Institute, who told me the prints were amazing,” he said. “It wasn’t as if the other faculty members were saying anything negative. I just think they didn’t know what I was doing.”
When Trudeau and Levinthal began working on the book, they used the toy soldier concept.
“I went through three iterations,” Levinthal said. “As we kept working, the concept continued to evolve, and at one point, I came across these 1/35 scale where all the arms, bodies, backpacks and guns were separate. You could get a lot of different poses.”
The photographs were shot within six to nine months, but it took then 2 1/2 years to get to the point where they could publish the book.
After the book came out in 1977, Levinthal did a number of shows, including one at the George Eastman Museum and one at the California Institute of the Arts.
“I remember being at the American Booksellers meeting in San Francisco, and this still amuses me, a woman came up to me and said, ‘You look awfully young to have taken these pictures during World War II,’” Levinthal said, “That focused me on the idea of using toys as a subject matter and sent me on a course of finding that idea of finding the line between fantasy and reality.”
An artist reception for photographer David Levinthal and his new exhibit “Wild West” will be held from 6-9p.m. on Friday, Dec. 30, at Julie Nester Gallery, 1280 Iron Horse Drive. The event is free and open to the public. For more information, visit http://www.julienestergallery.com.
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