As a kid growing up in northern California in the 1950s, photographer David Levinthal used to eagerly flip through his comic books to the back page so he could marvel at the Helen of Toy Company ad featuring Revolutionary War soldiers in all their glorious blues and reds. A box of soldiers cost about two dollars. And even though the toys that arrived never lived up to the ad's alluring illustration, Levinthal says, "It never kept me from buying more."
Levinthal first transformed his affinity for toy soldiers into art when he photographed these miniature men in action as an MFA student at Yale University. The project (which resulted in nearly 300 sepia-colored codeless prints) extended into a lifetime of work. For more than 40 years, Levinthal has used toy soldiers to create his own depiction of battle scenes -- from Custer's Last Stand to the fall of Berlin in World War II. The photos Levinthal took for his most recent series, I.E.D., portray scenes from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. When Levinthal first came across Iraq war-era toy soldiers while surfing the Internet in 2004, he was stunned. He was accustomed to dealing with these figures -- and the wars to which they belonged -- in an historical context. The depictions he'd created had always been backward-looking. To work with this medium as a representation of the present -- while the war was ongoing -- was transformative.
As described by art critic Dave Hickey in his foreword to War Games (the soon-to-be published book featuring Levinthal's full body of toy-soldier work), Levinthal's art is "a kid's solution to an adult dilemma." Levinthal, Hickey writes, has "combined the aggression of battle, the visual aggression of photography, and the built-in cultural aggression of 'serious' art to create a lethal cocktail -- a body of objects that are admirable, affecting, beautiful, and not comfortable at all."
But Levinthal's work is more than just arranging toys in play-fighting poses -- or merely an imitation of war. As Hickey keenly notes, Levinthal's photographs contain an "intimate appeal of toy soldiers and the fantasy of omniscience they bestow. First, toy soldiers are all very much the same, they all wear uniforms, and they are just where they are. They represent a species not a class. They have no dreams, no interiority or individuality, and Levinthal never tries to infer that they do."