American Myth & Memory

Levinthal photograph of a Barbie with short, perfectly coiffed hair. She is wearing pearls and a black dress.Everyday visitors tour DC and reflect on the history of this country. Our abundance of monuments and museums testify to how we value history. The exhibit “American Myth & Memory: David Levinthal Photographs” opened 7 July 2019 at the National Portrait Gallery. This new exhibit reflects on how we remember history and is a wonderful addition to your next Washington DC vacation.

The Artist

David Levinthal studied Studio Arts at Stanford University. His undergraduate education offered no photography courses, so he began to explore the subject in his spare time. He feels this ensured he pursued photography because it was something he really wanted. This hobby led him to study photography at a graduate level at Yale Univerisity, where he graduated with an MFA in photography. He is one of the first photographers to focus on toys.

The Art

Toys are an uncommon subject for a photographer. As Levinthal prefers a documentary style, his photographs most closely resemble historical portraits of living people. From wild west figurines to Barbie dolls, Levinthal photographs these objects as animate subjects. The toys are arranged and posed in deliberate ways. Often, Levinthal first constructs an intricate historical diorama before photographing. These models are far larger and more elaborate than the final photographs. Within the diorama, Levinthal looks for specific scenes and stories to tell. An example diorama is also on display alongside the photographs.

This toy portraiture is done with so much care it is easy to mistake the plastic figurines for living creatures. Horses from the ‘Wild West’ series look like they are in motion. Additionally, Levinthal pays a great deal of attention to the atmosphere in his photographs. By adjusting the focus, for instance, he creates a slight fuzziness reminiscent of viewing people from a distance on a hot, humid day.

Levinthal photograph of George Washington crossing the DelewareThe Questions

The exhibit brings into focus the tension between historical truth and what we remember. Pop cultural representations and retellings influence our memory perhaps more than historical fact. Reconstructions of iconic paintings and photographs in plastic figurines remind me that there is a mythology in our historical narrative. Levinthal consistently argues that toys are more than objects. He believes that toys inherently reflect the cultural attitudes and narratives of the society that created them. As a result, he photographs playthings with uncommon attention and care. The result is magical.

You can see the magic for yourself through 14 October 2019. The National Portrait Gallery is open 11:30 am to 7:00 pm. Admission is free. As you absorb our nation’s history, consider staying at our historic Washington DC B&B, conveniently located near Dupont Circle.