Toys aren't mere playthings to New York City photographer David Levinthal. Instead, they provide the lexicon for storytelling, inspired in one instance by the sultry nighthawks ofEdward Hopper or in another by the lone gunslingers of John Ford. "I've always felt the work is very narrative," he says. "It sort of asks you in a way to create a story around the image." In the process, his scenes of model ballplayers and soldiers comment on pop culture while being permeated by a sense of mystery and tangled emotions that reach beyond playtime. We talked to the Palo Alto-bred and Stanford alum Levinthal, 65, from NYC.
Q: What does the exhibition title "Make Believe" mean to you?
A: All of my works are based on using toys as subject matter. It started when I was in graduate school in 1972, when I first began using toys. Shortly after I graduated in 1973, one of my classmates who was in the design part of the program, Garry Trudeau, who's best known for "Doonesbury," and I were approached by a publisher to do a book. We ended up creating essentially a history of the Eastern Front, the German invasion of the Soviet Union, using toy soldiers ["Hitler Moves East"]. Among the many things that made the book somewhat unique: We used original source material for the text, but the illustrations were all photographs of toys.
When the book came out in 1977, there was no photographic genre to put it in. I remember going to the B. Dalton store and finding the book in the history section. It wasn't until a number of years later that that sort of approach we used started to become more widely popular and influential.
Q: Are your toys off the shelf?
A: Sometimes I'm dealing with more of a vintage object, like the "Blackface" series is essentially of black memorabilia. The work is often done in the photograph itself, in the way the toy is placed or photographed, and in the case of the cowboy series, the use of different backgrounds. I think one of the real keys to the imagery is that when someone looks at the work, they bring their own visual memory to it.
Q: How did the experience at Stanford affect you?
A: Fortunately, when I was a senior, Stanford eliminated many courses required for graduation - otherwise I'd still be trying to pass a language requirement or something.
It was a wonderful time because it was expansive and open, and there was so much going on with the Vietnam War, which is actually a series I've started to work on. Until recently, you just didn't find toys or models of that period.
If you go
David Levinthal: Make Believe: Through Nov. 30. 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday and 11 a.m.-8 p.m. the third Thursday of the month. $5-$8. San Jose Museum of Art, 110 S. Market St., San Jose. (408) 271-6840. www.sanjosemuseumofart.org.