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Not child’s play

David Levinthal, in ‘America! America! Exploring History, Myth and Memory,’ at the Griffin Museum, photographs toys to striking effect

David Levinthal, "Helicopter."David Levinthal

WINCHESTER — All photography is fake. Four dimensions (time counts, too) folded into two? Sorry, that’s ipso facto phony. But because photography is the closest visual approximation of actuality that we have, we agree to accept it as a simulacrum of reality.

David Levinthal embraces photography’s falsity so as to arrive at higher truths. That’s a neat trick if you can pull it off. He does. It’s even neater because that embrace takes the form of photographing toys, something he’s been doing for 50 years now.

The objects within Levinthal’s images announce their inherent unreality. God didn’t make these figures. Mattel or Hasbro did. Yet it’s their overt unreality, and the shrewd, transformative uses to which Levinthal puts it, that justifies the mightiness of the title “America! America! Exploring History, Myth and Memory.” The show runs at the Griffin Museum of Photography through June 5. It consists of 80 Levinthal photographs — and, in a fitting touch, four vintage toy boxes and a diorama he used for one of the images. There’s also a four-minute video interview with him that’s well worth watching.

In strictly technical terms, photographing toy figures poses a challenge. Their small size requires using a limited depth of field. This means backgrounds are indistinct, foregrounds often blurred. Visually, this is consistently striking — and even more so emotionally. Scenes feel both distanced and heightened. That may be an even neater trick, one which Levinthal also pulls off. For many of the photographs, he used a Polaroid 20x24 camera, giving the images a simultaneous monumentality and immediacy.


David Levinthal, "Dallas 1963."David Levinthal

Blurriness conjures up the operation of memory, the process of recollection further underscored by the association of toys with childhood. Blurring also gives these images an unexpectedly dynamic quality, suggesting the illusion of motion. This lends many of the photographs a startlingly cinematic aspect. Very much aware of this, Levinthal consciously draws on Hollywood genres: film noir, gangster picture, war movie, western. Beside film, another art factors in here. The toys have an unmistakably sculptural presence.


Memory, childhood, film, sculpture: It’s easy to see (and that is the word, “see”) how using toys, rather than being a limitation, is instead liberating. It has the additional benefit of letting Levinthal emphasize type while avoiding stereotype.

The show draws from various series Levinthal has done throughout his career. Some don’t work as well as others. The six photographs of the namesake doll in “Barbie” are carrying conceptual coals to a negligible Newcastle. Not even the presence of Ken or Skipper would help. “Space,” also with six pictures, has a related problem. That’s space as in astronauts. The photographed toys really do look toylike, or at least they do in comparison to the rockets and spacesuits they’re meant to represent. The remarkable balance between artifice and evocation that Levinthal achieves in his best work is absent. The eight SX-70 Polaroids from “Modern Romance” (a very ironic title) have a creepy kick. Or they do to the extent they’re legible. Their small size is a reminder of how important scale is to the impact of Levinthal’s work.

The five largest photographs in the show make that impact plain. Each is 40 inches by 54 inches. That’s big, but not as big as the punch they pack. “Iwo Jima” shows the flag being raised on Mount Suribachi: American history meets myth. In “Lone Ranger,” myth meets American silliness. This is “the West that never was but always will be,” Levinthal says. The balance here isn’t between artifice and evocation so much as apotheosis and self-parody.


David Levinthal, "Lone Ranger."David Levinthal

Levinthal has spoken of the influence John Ford’s westerns have had on him, and “Wyatt Earp” comes straight out of Ford’s “My Darling Clementine” (1946). “Helicopter,” from Levinthal’s series “Vietnam,” bears a comparable relationship to Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” (1979). The flare-filled background is nightmarish, spectacular, overwhelming. In a very different way, those words also describe “Dallas 1963.” As a visual metaphor for the place of the Kennedy assassination in American memory, it’s unnervingly apt. What we see is instantly recognizable yet also a hopeless muddle.

The show includes a series devoted to hockey and another to baseball. In both, the toys work particularly well, not least because the figures are identifiable. Isn’t that Wayne Gretzky? It is. Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito are here, too. Thankfully, both are shown as Bruins. One of the ballplayers is Ted Williams. Even seen from behind, that swing makes him unmistakable. Williams’s presence is a pleasing grace note. Arthur Griffin, the museum’s founder, was for many years a noted Boston photojournalist. His most famous picture shows, yes, Theodore Samuel Williams.

Stephen Albair, "How Dare You Not Be Me!"Stephen Albair

Stephen Albair’s 10 color photographs in “Silent Scenes” also use toys, as well as other found objects, to create tableaus. The images are vibrant and engaging, but being shown in proximity to Levinthal’s does them a disservice. They seem jokey and self-conscious by comparison, underscoring the easily overlooked austerity of Levinthal’s compositions.


Philip Sager, "Untitled 4."Philip Sager

Philip Sager’s “Veiled Actualities” consists of 15 photographs. The closer a viewer looks, the more arresting they become. At first glance, the images appear painterly, thanks to Sager’s delicate use of color and how they seem to verge on abstraction. In fact, they’re everyday scenes shot in such a way that reflected images are superimposed on those scenes. Sager doesn’t employ multiple exposures or darkroom (or digital) manipulation. He gets his image “in camera.” What he hopes to achieve, he writes, are “visual metaphors that layer textures, reflecting internal chaos and emotional turbulence.”

Jon Chase, "Graveyard shift, Twilight, West Virginia."Jon Chase/Jon Chase photo

Jon Chase has been a staff photographer at Harvard for nearly three decades. In 1978 and ’79 he went to West Virginia, taking his camera with him. The six black-and-white photographs in “Coal Country” are part of that body of work. Two show miners, one a railroad worker, one a woman and her daughter, and two more are religious scenes. All are unframed and matted, adding to the simplicity and directness of what we see. Chase has provided extended captions. “I am a strong believer in combining words with photos,” he writes. Those captions are well worth reading. Even without them, though, the photographs possess a rare eloquence.

DAVID LEVINTHAL: America! America! Exploring History, Myth and Memory


PHILIP SAGER: Veiled Actualities

JON CHASE: Coal Country


At Griffin Museum of Photography, 67 Shore Road, Winchester, through June 5. 781-729-1158, griffinmuseum.org

Mark Feeney can be reached at mark.feeney@globe.com.