Category Archives: thinking about photographs

David Levinthal; Untitled (Wild West Sheriff 11-94), from the series “The Wild West”

David Levinthal: Make Believe

Note: This originally posted on NJWV.

Toys are intriguing, and I want to see what I can do with them. On a deeper level, they represent one way that society socializes its young.

David Levinthal

David Levinthal; Untitled #64

David Levinthal; Untitled (No. 159 alt), from the series, Modern Romance

David Levinthal; Untitled (No. 124), from the series, XXX

David Levinthal; Untitled (Willie Mays, No. 43), from the series, Baseball

David Levinthal; Untitled (Wild West Sheriff 11-94), from the series “The Wild West”

David Levinthal; Blackface (#1), from the series “Blackface”

David Levinthal; Untitled (No. 8), from the series, Mein Kampf

David Levinthal; Untitled (No. 1), from the series, Hitler Moves East,

I had a chance a few weeks ago to check out David Levinthal at the San José Museum of Art. It’s worth seeing. While at one level, photographs of toys can feel like something which falls into the clever gimmick side of things.* These are not just photos of toys—in fact, there’s nothing juvenile about anything here.

*Especially in our upworthy-saturated age where this exhibition just felt like something that could be titled “Common toys photographed as if they were real, you won’t believe the results!”

A lot of times, Levinthal directly apes existing photographers or photographic work. Just as often though, he starts off aping something specific and proceeds to get sidetracked into deeper investigations into the nature of the toy itself—and what the toy represents in our socialization. In both cases, the results retain hints of the toyness but also take us beyond into realms were we start rethinking how we perceive and react to the subjects of  photos in general.

There’s a lot of cultural baggage present. In the subjects, in ourselves, and in how we approach and react to the medium of photography.

Even though we know—or should know—better, it’s so easy to fall into the trap of thinking that photography is true and that certain manipulations of the subject are somehow unethical. Maybe it’s photographic cheating. Maybe it’s more along the lines of the current market for unretouched photos—typically of women—which is either about shaming celebrities for “lying,” embarrassing them for being real, or setting a “good example” for our girls.*

*I’ll admit that I don’t understand the gotcha nature of these photos and I’ve never understood exactly what the intended message accompanying their release is.

For me, Levinthal’s photos of Barbie do a lot more at calling out the artifice in photography—especially fashion photography—than any of the supposed ethical violations. By photographing Barbie in the style of Irving Penn and Richard Avedon, we can see how artificial everything really is. The images read as fashion—heck we’re looking at the clothes more than we do in most fashion photos where we can be distracted by the charisma of the model. At the same time, we know none of it is real and can start asking questions about lighting and makeup and color and depth of field and focus and what message this kind of toy sends to our kids.

Light and focus in particular are two tools which get a lot of extra attention in this show. Many of the photos are intentionally out of focus—emphasizing form over details. This makes it easy to lose track of the fact that these are toys so we start filling in our own details. When things are theatrically lit on top of this, I found myself reacting to these as if they were real even though I knew they weren’t.

But not in an uncanny valley way. The lighting and focus tricks manage to avoid both the valley and any sense of hyperreality. We see mood and gesture and more adult natures in the toys instead.

Levinthal is troubled by the proliferation of porn and sexuality, especially when it becomes embedded in toys and child socialization. I can see his point while also finding it kind of quaint; art museums tend to skew in the complete opposite direction.

His approach with the dolls manages to point a lot of this out without being either skeevy or crackpot. He’s not being a creep with kids’ toys nor is he looking for things which aren’t there. He’s mining all these toys for their mythic imagery and pulling out all kinds of things that kids just absorb.

They’re never just toys. Kids play with toys to roleplay and figure out their reality. When toys get pushed into situations beyond the orthodox use cases,* a lot of this latent imagery becomes more apparent.

*As someone who fully agrees with Micheal Chabon’s rant about the orthodoxy of Toy Story, I sure hope they do.

So many of Levinthal’s series are about mining specific myth families. Whether they’re famous baseball moments or the Wild West or iconic historic moments (e.g. Little Bighorn, Iwo Jima, and The Alamo), in all cases the toys become larger than life. They’re gateways into movies and fantasies and learning what it means to be American.

Many of them speak to me and my youth and remind me both of being a kid again and  what I get to see my own sons play with. The nostalgia though is tempered with warnings about how almost all this imagery is, or can be, problematic. These are all myths from a simpler time. We know better about them now.

Nowhere is this more clear than in the blackface photos. Where most of Levinthal’s work is subtle and allows us to imagine things as being real, these photos are in-your-face grotesque. They emphasize how these can’t be fun no matter how “harmless” people claim them to be. This isn’t a fantasy myth, it’s a dash of cold water on top of what used to be common imagery.

This is quite a different approach to this subject than Carrie Mae Weems’s subtlety. It’s no less powerful and very interesting to compare American Icons with Levinthal. The subtext of common household toy is the same. Weems shows how insidiously common they could be. Levinthal forces us to really observe the nastiness of the stereotype.

The photos of Nazi toys are similarly troubling. In this case, the toys aren’t grotesque; they’re seductively beautiful. By being toys, we can kind of explore this seduction in a safe space. At the same time, even blurred, these photos remind us how much we’ve been socialized. Holy crap is an out of focus Hitler doll still pretty fucking menacing.

From a design impact point of view, the Nazis knew exactly what they were doing. It’s clear in the photos how much Levinthal was drawn to the designs too. From a kid’s point of view, it’s also an important lesson on making sure that we adequately explain how we can be seduced by things that are bad for us. And that it’s okay to feel that and even acknowledge the compulsion without having to act on it.

It’s especially interesting to compare the Nazi photos with the photos from Hitler Moves East. In this case, Levinthal isn’t mining the myths as much as he’s staging and creating his own. Since there are few photos of Operation Barbarossa, the result is almost a graphic novel illustrated with Capa-like photos of toys.

Just like a graphic novel can pack serious punches when softened with the appearance of kids-stuff, these photos illustrate material which may have been too heavy to handle if actual photos existed.

I haven’t seen a photo exhibition like this which made me truly question how real every image was or to what explicit portion of the image I was reacting to, or whether my reaction was a product of my socialization. I was second guessing myself a lot. In the best way. With a lot of questions I should ask myself about all photographs I encounter.


Most of the prints on display are large-format Polaroids. I’m not going to go into tech geekery here. It’s just wonderful to see them in person.

Mishka Henner. Coronado Feeders, Dalhart, Texas.

Mishka Henner

Duchamp was about changing the way we think of art, and how we look at the world. In using pictures taken by robots, other photographers might think of me as a joke, but Duchamp faced that all his life—it makes me think I am doing something right.

Mishka Henner

Mishka Henner. Natural Butte Oil Field in Utah.
Natural Butte Oil Field in Utah
Mishka Henner. Coronado Feeders, Dalhart, Texas.
Coronado Feeders, Dalhart, Texas
Mishka Henner. Levelland and Slaughter Oil Field.
Levelland and Slaughter Oil Field
Mishka Henner. Tascosa Feedyard, Texas.
Tascosa Feedyard, Texas
Mishka Henner. Levelland and Slaughter Oil Field
Levelland and Slaughter Oil Field
Mishka Henner. Randall County Feedyard, Amarillo, Texas
Randall County Feedyard, Amarillo, Texas

I really liked what Ed Ruscha said once, that all he wanted to do was photograph the facts. He just wanted to see if it was possible, with his gasoline stations and parking lots and all the rest of it.

Mishka Henner

I’ve found that quite a few of my projects have revealed a lot of the assumptions and judgements that a section of the photo community continues to take for granted about documentary. It really doesn’t have to be like that. There’s so much more scope for pushing the boundaries of what documentary can be.

Mishka Henner

Because I’ve been pumping my fist a little too much with each successive interview with Mishka Henner recently. I really like what he’s doing—both in his methods of approaching the overwhelming amount of robot photography out there as well as what he’s chosen to say with it. He’s going directly at the “what is art” question in a way which forces everyone to question their assumptions about the medium. Why do we think what’s “good” is good? What do we expect from certain genres? Are our sacred cows truly sacrosanct? We need voices and visions like his.

The Oil Fields and Feed Lots projects in particular speak to me. Partially because I like photography from space and the way patterns emerge from both nature and human impact. But also because of the scale of consumption that they present. It’s one thing to see close-up shots of the way our mass-comsumption industry had perverted nature. It’s another to see a satellite view and realize exactly how big the impacted area is.

That these photos are indeed illegal to take despite being freely available via satellite* adds that extra level of trickster fun which takes these from being just about the story of consumption to also including how these are big business—with tentacles into the government and a vested interest in our remaining ignorant of what they show.

*Reminding everyone what happened to George Steinmetz.

This is documentary photography which is about more than just what’s in the photos. Henner’s widening the frame to include the photographer and the editor and even the viewer as well.

Vava. 1962. Keystone/Getty Images.

World Cup

Diego Maradona. 1982. Steve Powell/Getty Images.
Diego Maradona. 1982. Steve Powell/Getty Images.
Vava. 1962. Keystone/Getty Images.
Vava. 1962. Keystone/Getty Images.

In celebration of the World Cup, Sports Ilustrated posted a gallery of the 100 best photos in World Cup history. I couldn’t help but click and look at all of them since I’m always interested in looking at sports photography from an art point of view.* I was a bit disappointed with what I found. The gallery is a list of great moments and great players, but most of the photographs are more about documenting the moment rather than anything else.

*I’ve been keeping notes in the comments on that post of examples of sports photography which I also consider art photography.

For me, there were only two which I really liked as photos themselves. Both the Vava photo and the Maradona photos are deserved classics. The Maradona photo gets copied/referenced a lot now in soccer photography anytime a player appears to be taking on a whole group of defenders. The original is a great photo in both its composition and how it allows us to empathize with both Maradona and the outmatched defenders.

The Vava photo is just strikingly lit with not only a great gesture but the rim light and almost-silhouette and shadow anchoring the height of the celebratory jump. Both photos also show how great photos can be when they show the back of the subject.

Zinedine Zidane. 2006. John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images.
Zinedine Zidane. 2006. John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images.
Diego Maradona. 1986. Bongarts/Getty Images.
Diego Maradona. 1986. Bongarts/Getty Images.

The Maradona photo is also one of the few action photos which isn’t of a specific moment in the game. Most of the photos are of greta moments—including some truly iconic photos which are recognizable to non-soccer fans. The Hand of God is infamous and the Zidane headbutt occurred in the age of memes. These photos capture the moments at the exact right times and while I can’t call them art, they do count as great photos.

Alcides Ghiggia. 1950. AP.
Alcides Ghiggia. 1950. AP.

The Maracanaço photo isn’t the iconic image* but it’s a great moment and a great example of a photo which shows two players responding in the exact opposite ways.

*That would be the photo of Moacir Barbosa Nascimento from behind as he fails to save the goal. Which is totally fitting in how he took the blame for the event.

Bobby Moore. 1966. Rolls Press/Popperfoto/Getty Images.
Bobby Moore. 1966. Rolls Press/Popperfoto/Getty Images.
Uli Steilike. 1982. Picture-alliance/dpa/AP.
Uli Steilike. 1982. Picture-alliance/dpa/AP.
Roberto Baggio. 1994. Luca Bruno/AP.
Roberto Baggio. 1994. Luca Bruno/AP.
Iker Casillas. 2010. Simon Bruty/SI.
Iker Casillas. 2010. Simon Bruty/SI.

A lot of the other photos are reaction photos of either happy winners or distraught losers. Nothing new here and a lot of them are obvious photo opportunities. Many of these require us to know the context of the game to really understand anything more than just the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. It’s nice to see people celebrating and happy but those are also the obvious photos.

I was especially disappointed that the photo of Daniel Passarella wasn’t included here as I think I would include it with the Maradona and Vava photos at the top of this post. His expression is more than just happiness and speaks to how sports matters so much to so many of us.

What interests me most though in looking through these is that it forces me to think about how so many of the iconic photojournalism images are also purely documentary yet we have a tendency to treat them as something higher brow as well.

A lot of this I think is due to the fact that sports is somewhat predictable. You know where the key action will occur and you even know what kind of action to expect.* This isn’t even “ƒ/8 and be there” since the photographers are also all stuck in photographer zones. Unlike news photographs where the photojournalist has to get to the right place at the right time, sports photography just feels (incorrectly I should add) like something you need good gear and access in order to do.

*Although the Zidane photo occurred off the ball and is something which I wouldn’t expect to be photographed even though the photographer was probably following Zidane instead of the ball.

The other thing is that even in an event which occurs once every four years, a lot of these photos are of the same thing. After a while, goal celebrations and even goals look very similar and it’s tough to say that any of them are that much better than the others let alone being the kind of thing that stands out to a non-soccer audience.

Whereas with photojournalism, I think a lot of what we value in the photo is both the uniqueness of the image and the ability of the photographer to both get there and be able to take it. Everything we’re looking at here is technically good, it’s the everything else which makes the difference.


Tom Howard. Sing Sing Correctional Facility, 1928: Ruth Snyder is executed by electrocution.

Death and the power of photography

Daily News Front page. Extra Edition. January 13, 1928.
Daily News Front page. Extra Edition. January 13, 1928.

The black-and-white image was shocking to the U.S. and international public alike. There sat a 32-year-old wife and mother, killed for killing. Her blurred figured seemed to evoke her struggle, as one can imagine her last, strained breaths. Never before had the press been able to attain such a startling image—one not made in a faraway war, one not taken of the aftermath of a crime scene, but one capturing the very moment between life and death here at home.

Erica Fahr Campbell

Campbell’s article doesn’t delve any further into the effect of this photograph on death penalty debates. To this day, however, no prisons allow photography during executions. What if things were different? How might the careful documentation of this process — with all our technology for capturing and sharing images — change the debate today? And whose interests are most protected by keeping executions invisible?

Lisa Wade

A good photo to be aware of. Especially given photography’s history with death and the way that photography really came of age during the Civil War. There’s something about photographing death that is especially compelling, even today. While the news media’s fixation on death images as clickbait is gross, it is worth asking ourselves why we all look and why those are newsworthy.

I don’t think it’s just shock value. Death is one of those things that we don’t like to think about because it’s unknowable and inevitable. It’s one of those things we’re taught from an early age how to compartmentalize and protect ourselves from addressing.

It’s one of the hardest things I’ve had to talk to my son about so far. Precisely because we don’t know. And he wants answers. To everything. And I can’t give him good ones. I think I’m still looking for those myself. Hence my difficulty in turning away from these photos.

Kip Praslowicz

Dismissal via Snapshot

Kip Praslowicz. Chester Park. Duluth, MN. November
Kip Praslowicz. Chester Park. Duluth, MN. November

Start with the snapshot. Start with the connection. Figure out why grandma cares about the subject and make that the keystone in a photograph. Then pile on the better gear, experience and technical tricks to make it a better damn photograph than grandma can take.

(via Dismissal Via Snapshot | Kip Praslowicz)

Yes! Yes! Yes!

The irony of dismissal via snapshot is that “snapshots” are almost always the most-posed and edited photos in the album. Seriously. Think about all the photos your parents, relatives, friends’ parents, etc. took of you. “Everybody get together. Smile. Stop screwing around! You too! Okay let me back up and get everyone in. On three. Okay, I think someone blinked, let me take another just to be safe. etc. etc.”

Aspiring to take meaningful and good family photos is all I truly care about in my photography. That this is somehow an inferior practice? Please. Those are the only photos most of us really care about.