David Levinthal was born in San Francisco California in 1949. His work contains hints at iconic symbols of American culture, especially his Barbie series and Baseball series. He works mainly on large format Polaroid’s photographing toys and railway figures. He creates all of his sets by hand, and lights them to achieve the atmosphere he requires for his image. He first became interested in using this aesthetic when he started cutting up a cardboard box and foam board then joined them together with tape. He realised he had an enthusiasm for this type of work when he noticed he was creating a room, which turned into an office, a hotel room or a corridor depending on how he looked at it, he was creating something that could tell a story. So he started to cut windows into the building he had made, letting the light shine through at different angles, creating brightly lit scenes, that could showcase everyday activities or dull scenes which gave the viewer an eerie, mysterious and voyeuristic feel. The scenes were not perfect in their manufacture; he had made them to look good enough to be photographed, wanting to transform them into narrative using lights and figures placed within the frame. His spaces were only parts of a suggested larger place, one the viewer of the photograph can only imagine when they look at his images.
Hobby shops contained everything Levinthal needed to create his scenes. He would buy mini sheets of wall paper for his rooms, using many designs in his different creations. This attention to detail shows in the atmosphere created by his images, sometimes the depth of field was so small in his images that you can’t see the detail in the background, but it is there, just out of view for us to imagine.
When he was photographing these scenes he worked in the dark, needing to focus on the lighting of each set. He used doll house lamps with hidden pin lights inside them to give them a dull light-bulb glow, adding an even further sense of realism to his work. Pin lights could be hidden in any area of the photograph to draw your attention to that area of the picture. He would shine lights through his modelled windows, to simulate natural light. Each scene needed a different atmosphere so Levinthal would create it using the lights, to show the drama and story in each photograph. He would use tape on the windows to simulate the light shining through blinds, making his sets fool our eye into believing they are real, or at least making us look twice at his images. He used coloured acetate to enhance his images, red and orange could give a room warmth, while blue and green could create an eerie cold atmosphere. Levinthal knew how to manipulate each part of the lighting in his sets to achieve the atmosphere he wanted. He imitated the shine of neon lights on pavements, the welcoming warmth of light from an open door, and the dull, green hue of distant alleyways. The places he created always seemed to be hiding something, he manipulated the light in such a way that he could turn a toy figure in a photograph into something you have to look at for a long period of time wondering whether it is real or not.
David Levinthal works with mini figures intended for use on adult’s model railways, they are less than an inch tall but very detailed. The most detailed and highly coloured ones Levinthal likes to use are made by a German company called Preiser. Preiser offers a large selection of figures in many different poses and for many different purposes. They are all hand painted, which helps the colours stand out even in the dull lighting Levinthal likes to use. Even looking at the new figures Preiser has released recently I can imagine Levinthal using them in one of his photographs; the figures still have the same aesthetic today.
To photograph his elaborate sets he used large format Polaroid’s, this was so he could achieve the short depth of field his images are so well-known for today. The short depth of field gives the photographs even more mystery because the background is removed from the image, turned into blurs of colour by the camera. This adds to the realism of the photograph, especially because the shot is blurry focused on one small part of the image, which suggests movement with in the frame. He uses lighting that brings out the colour but also takes some of the detail away, so that it is even harder for the viewer to decide if the image is real. Take this image for example, from his Wild West series, it is number nineteen. The orange-yellow colours Levinthal has used in the background really bring an image of the Wild West into any viewers mind, and not being able to see the detail adds to this illusion. The short depth of field has blurred the background and the horse, giving the image the sense of movement. We imagine the horse is galloping into the distant, that the cowboy on the horse gun drawn, in is pursuit of something or someone.
David Levinthal uses figures because he can manipulate them to show what he wants, he can also build a set around them, using lights to create the atmosphere he desires for the narrative. Using figures also took him back to his childhood, the times he would spend dreaming and creating stories with his toys. Levinthal’s love of toys followed him from his childhood into his college years and it was this love of toys, especially toy figures that he found again as an adult. I find it fascinating to find out that the photographer I find most inspiring enjoys taking photographs of figures and toys for the same reason I do. We both like to manipulate them to tell a story, creating the sets takes as much work as finding real life sets, we just work in miniature, enjoying being able to manipulate the light and setting more to achieve the atmosphere we want.