Populated with toy cowboys and cavalry, Barbie dolls and baseball players, David Levinthal’s photographs reference iconic images and events that shaped postwar American society. Despite their playful veneer, Levinthal’s images provide a lens through which to examine the myths and stereotypes lurking within our most beloved pastimes and enduring heroes. In doing so, Levinthal encourages us to consider the stories we tell about ourselves—what it means to be strong, beautiful, masculine, feminine, and ultimately, American.
American Myth & Memory: David Levinthal Photographs brings together six of the artist’s best-known bodies of work to explore some myths found in American popular culture and their place in our collective memory. Created between 1984 and 2018, the series Modern Romance, American Beauties, Wild West, Barbie, Baseball, and History all explore quintessentially American themes and imagery. The exhibition includes more than 70 color photographs drawn from two recent gifts to SAAM. The exhibition is organized by Joanna Marsh, SAAM’s Deputy Education Chair, Head of Interpretation and Audience Research.
Hi, I’m David Levinthal. I’m an artist who uses photography and toys to create worlds of vivid imagination.
JOANNA MARSH: The toys Levinthal uses are actually stand-ins, not for any one individual, but for all of us, for society. The toys invite us to think about the culture that produced them.
DL: I think one of the strongest American themes in my work is obviously the Westerns. I reference some of the old John Ford movies in particular. I read a number of first-person accounts of the period, and there’s no relationship between that and what you see on film. You’d see it in so many ways, how ingrained it is in our culture, even though none of it happened that way. And certainly, the same is true about the pilgrims and all the wonderful stories we had as children. My work is about a West that never was but always will be.
JM: Levinthal uses toys to represent something that’s right in front of us, all around us even. They reinforce and evoke American myths about gender roles, the way we think about masculinity and femininity, the way we think about what it means to be strong, or what it means to be beautiful. It’s one of the reasons the exhibition is titled “American Myth and Memory”. Memory plays a crucial role in myth-making.
One of the things visitors are likely to notice about David Levinthal’s work is how out of focus it seems to appear, literally blurry, and this blurriness is very intentional.
DL: Getting close to these very small figures inherently gave you a very narrow depth of field. That became my signature style. It was a perfect way to hide the toy-ness, so to speak.
JM: The technique he uses of focusing on one small area of the photograph, and then blurring all of the rest, is a way to invite viewers to project their own memories or associations, desires even, into the image and then complete it themselves.
DL: I’ve always said about my work – and I don’t mean this in a derogatory sense – but there’s less in my photographs than meets the eye. What I mean by that is, I look at my work as a narrative that taps into each individual’s own memory. I look back at something like the “Baseball” series. There was a tremendous nostalgia for me in doing that and photographing figures of Roberto Clemente and delving into that wonderful history of baseball. I feel my work has always been very narrative in that way, and so people will look at the work and visualize and create their own unique stories, so to speak. And I hope that that’s a process that they find both engaging and fun because I certainly get a great deal of pleasure and enjoyment from being able to create this work.
Join us for a conversation with artist David Levinthal and exhibition curator Joanna Marsh as we celebrate the opening of American Myth & Memory: David Levinthal Photographs. Levinthal discusses his work, process, and the role that photography plays in the construction of collective memory. Through his photos, Levinthal reexamines familiar American subjects and the myths surrounding them.
American Myth & Memory: David Levinthal Photographs is organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum with generous support from the Margery and Edgar Masinter Exhibitions Fund, the William and Christine Ragland Family Photography Endowment, and the Bernie Stadiem Endowment Fund.