DAVID LEVINTHAL:PROVOCATIVE STORYTELLER
By Robert Hirsch
A Big Country on a Small Screen
David Levinthal (b.1949) grew up during the Cold War when the United States and the Soviet Union struggled for supremacy. School children were taught to “Duck and Cover” under the threat of a nuclear attack. The explosive growth of the new medium of television in the 1950s produced children’s programs with manly, larger-than-life heroes such as Davy Crockett, Roy Rogers, and Sky King, along with abundant WWII programming. Levinthal came of age during the turbulent 1960s that experienced the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962) and saw the rise of the Civil Rights movement, feminism, gay rights, and resistance to the Vietnam War, all of which challenged the existing power structures, and entered American homes via the television.
Levinthal is a prolific storyteller, a bard giving our stories back to us in new provocative forms. Utilizing commercially produced toy figures and playsets, he creates tableaus representing post-World War II societal realities and American myths. Throughout his career, Levinthal meticulously pursued archetypal topics that he examined with analytical research reinforced by his education at Sanford (BA 1970), Yale (MFA 1973), and MIT (MBA, 1981).
Each of Levinthal’s bodies of work expresses the tenor of their times, which includes turmoil and power structures surrounding social allegories. His imaginative interpretations deliberately “poke the bear” to give us a mirror to see ourselves. After all, how can one advocate for social progress if one does not acknowledge and discuss distressing subjects?
Hitler Moves East (1972—1975)
While at Yale Levinthal collaborated with Doonesbury cartoonist and fellow graduate student Garry Trudeau, to create Hitler Moves East: A Graphic Chronicle, 1941-43, a history of Nazi Germany’s hegemonic aspirations to invade the Soviet Union. Their intention was to conquer the East to steal the land and possessions of the inhabitants, then enslave and murder them, especially the Jews who they considered to be sub-human vermin with scheming intentions. Levinthal and Trudeau’s guided storytelling approach, which was both methodical and spontaneous, was indicative of the blossoming genre of staged art photography. It was an “immersion into a realm between fantasy and reality.”1 These characteristics came to define Levinthal’s oeuvre.
Levinthal reflects: “This was my first significant body of work that would become the root of all of the work that shaped my career as an artist. Over time, I realized that it was the purest, and the most honestly raw body of work that I would ever do. I was taking those pictures and making those Kodalith prints2 and there were no external forces at work to pressure me. Things like sales, major galleries, the whole ‘art world’ as we know it today didn’t exist then for photography. The series and the book gave me a focus and a realization that I was doing something special. Each succeeding body of work built on each other and I developed skills that I would refine and extend over the years.”3
What we see emerging is Levinthal’s directorial methodology that makes the studio the creation site for exploring our social narratives. Its key features include constructing dioramas with toy figurines, use of close-ups and selective focus to generate specific points of visual interest. There is an intimacy about a shallow depth of field that makes the subject matter more personal. Many of these methods could have been subconsciously absorbed from watching TV productions in the 1950s and 1960s.
Toys are a means through which we enculturate our young and pass on, for good or ill, our stories and values. Through play, children act out the narratives they have absorbed and also ones of their invention – creating new worlds in their own image. Levinthal’s work echoes this process.
In Hitler Moves East Levinthal’s tight composition and shallow depth of field,4 controls the viewing distance, isolating his subject matter while directing attention to what is figuratively important in each composition. All at once this both liberates the subject from its original context and lends it a sense of historic authenticity, giving the perception that these grainy, monochrome images with a limited tonal range might have been actual World War II photographs. Simultaneously, they are ambiguous, blurred fragments of a scene, which can
induce an illusion of movement into inanimate objects and introduce a sense of absence and lost time. Such nebulous space leaves the remainder to be filled in by the viewer. This tactic acts as an emotional, historical, philosophical, and psychological tool of inquiry, which opens up the narrative. This encourages a viewer to examine compositions as a sequence of events, slowing down and/or speeding up, stimulating both experience and memory. This asks us to investigate the subject matter for what we think it to be while deliberating what it could culturally and personally represent.
This notion that less is more, limiting what one can clearly see, encourages one to look and think harder while enabling the background color scheme to influence emotional response, which Levinthal enhances through backdrop materials made of spray-painted velum that is dramatically lit from behind. Levinthal summarizes: “Reality thus becomes that which we feel to be real, that which strikes an emotional chord within us.”5
Process wise, Levinthal “loved that Kodalith paper was the antithesis of the Zone System6 and that prints were developed not by time, but by eye. I loved the sepia tonality of the prints. There was a sense of time with the Kodalith paper, vintage but contemporary at the same time.” This investigational mindset would lead him to experiment with other print mediums, especially Polaroid.
Levinthal claims that most of his projects “come about by happenstance.” However, with the benefit of hindsight, one can see how Hitler Moves East is the first of a life’s work examining intersecting themes of power, agency, and exploitation.
Mein Kampf (1993-1994)
A direct descendent of Hitler Moves East is Mein Kampf. As a precocious 11-year old, Levinthal recalls watching the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the Nazi Final Solution of the Jewish Question, a euphemism for the mass murder of European Jews. He must have absorbed the horrified reactions of his parents and their friends as television brought the Holocaust into the homes of American Jews. Levinthal states: “I grew up in a secular Jewish tradition. I refer to it as the City College of New York (CCNY) leftist Jewish
intellectual world. My father was a physicist who moved to California to study at Stanford where he became a faculty member so the intellectual aspect of being Jewish, stressing education and accomplishment were predominant. In conducting the project research, visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau made me more aware of being Jewish, not in a religious way but in a cultural and historic way.”
The Holocaust was the grim culmination of centuries of antisemitism, the rejection of human equality for Jews who were believed to be a separate, sub-human “Jewish race” from white Europeans. Adolf Hitler and his willing executioners relied upon this rejection of human equality for Jews to enslave and murder them on an industrial scale.
The project’s power comes from actual historic images, which Levinthal recreated for heightened emotional effect. Unlike their black-and-white sources, Levinthal relied on Polaroid’s vivid colors and glossy surface to bring into the present the actual events of his reenactments, thus confronting viewers with the terrors of Hitler’s genocidal Final Solution.
In Levinthal’s work, past and present merge and we hear the echo of history. Hate-filled rhetoric has again been awakened across this country with antisemitism on the rise. People who thought the horrific things that happened in Europe would never happen in the United States have been taken aback. Unfortunately this has not been the case as hate crimes against Jewish people in New York City alone have dramatically increased, giving Mein Kampf an unfortunate renewed contemporary urgency.7
1 Email from David Levinthal to the author, January 18, 2020.
2 Kodalith paper was a thin, semi-matt, orthochromatic graphic arts (litho) material designed to deliver high contrast black-and-white results with dense blacks. It was subverted by experimental makers to make gritty representational images because its tone, texture, and tonal range could be subjectively visually controlled in the darkroom by a combination of time and temperature under a red safelight.
3 All the David Levinthal quotes and references in this essay, except where noted, are from numerous email conversations between Levinthal and the author from December 2019 to March 2020, which have been lightly edited and condensed for clarity and space.
4 Depth of field is the distance between the nearest and the farthest objects that are in sharp focus, which can be controlled by the focal length of the lens and its aperture.
5 Levinthal, David, “Hitler Moves East,” Camera Austria 33/34 (1989): 56.
6 The Zone System is a photographic technique for determining optimal film exposure and development, formulated by Ansel Adams and Fred Archer around 1939-1940 and is the foundation of the photographic fine print aesthetic.
7 “Antisemitic hate crimes in New York increased by nearly 50% since 2020 – NYPD,” www.jpost.com/diaspora/antisemitism/antisemitic-hate-crimes-in-new-york-increased-by-nearly-50-percent-since-2020-nypd-688444