September 15, 2013

David Levinthal's Intricately Staged Tableaus of Toy Soldiers


Occasional MTSC customer David Levinthal has just published a new book War Games. Levinthal, a central figure in the history of American postmodern photography, has staged uncanny tableaux using toy soldiers and miniature dioramas for nearly forty years. Levinthal's combat-related tableaux constitute a remarkable critique of the ways society experiences conflict through its portrayal. His groundbreaking project "Hitler Moves East" (1975–77), a series of imagined scenes from World War II's Russian front, first established his reputation, becoming a touchstone for the iconoclastic generation of American photographers. The book has a beautifully designed canvas hardcover with silkscreen print and a dust jacket.

From the WSJ, Septemebr 14,3013
Photo-Op: Small Wars
David Levinthal's intricately staged tableaus of toy soldiers give sadly familiar historical scenes somber new menace. A photographic review of "War Games."

Little children take their toys deadly seriously. Woe betide the Bolshevik younger brother who seizes a princess from a castle, or the perfidious parent who dislodges a tank from its position guarding the couch. The seriousness with which David Levinthal's photographs treat his subject—mostly model soldiers and other figurines—is part of the unsettling joke. His 1977 breakthrough, 'Hitler Moves East' (a collaboration with 'Doonesbury' cartoonist Garry Trudeau), confounded perceptions of scale and neatly mimicked the visual values of World War II photography. Toy soldiers march through forests, hide in fields or lie face down in mud, while planes and trains burst into flames around them. The blur used to obscure depth became a literal 'fog of war.' The book was reissued last year, and selections appear in 'War Games' (Kehrer, 133 pages, $50), which includes Mr. Levinthal's further experiments in tin-soldier photography. He has re-created scenes from the Nuremberg rallies and Nazi concentration camps with original 1930s Nazi toy soldiers, lending these sadly familiar scenes a somber new menace. He has done the Battle of the Alamo and even night-vision-green scenes from Iraq. But the images that spring most to life, so to speak, are of old schoolboy favorites: cowboys and Indians battling in the American West. Intricately arrayed dioramas recall the compositions of Frederic Remington or his dime-magazine imitators, while lush color and blurred depths suggest a battlefield frenzy, as warriors close in upon a settler or a rider falls from his horse, an arrow in his side. Even an ironist would agree: No heroism is so pure, as every boy knows, as that of a miniature figurine.

A version of this article appeared September 14, 2013, on page C6 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Photo-Op: Small Wars.

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