Untitled work from the series “Wild West” (1987 to 2012)
Untitled work from the series “Wild West” (1987 to 2012)

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The photographer David Levinthal has built his long, fruitful career using childhood toys to plumb the horrors of war. “War Games,” the Levinthal retrospective now at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, focuses on several series in which the photographer chronicles the Nazi war machine, the war for the American frontier, and most recently, the American-led campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Through skillful and clever fiddling with his plane of focus, Levinthal crafts convincing facsimiles of real historical scenes using tiny artifacts of pop culture.

The introductory wall text argues that Levinthal’s work “reveals the harsh nature of warfare with ambiguity and humor.” I’m not sure what “humor” they’re picking up on, but Levinthal’s work has ambiguity in spades.

The first image by Levinthal I ever saw—at the Corcoran, a decade and a half ago—was an untitled work from the mid-1970s series “Hitler Moves East.” The grainy black-and-white photograph shows four soldiers at the edge of a grassy depression just as a grenade is exploding, tossing several of the figures backward or into the air. Not knowing about Levinthal’s M.O., I was initially transfixed by the image’s visceral, convincing horror. Then I began to wonder how Levinthal could have possibly captured that moment on film. Wouldn’t he have been killed in the blast, too? Only later did I learn he had photographed a careful arrangement of toys and a specially fabricated scene of soil planted with grass.

In important ways, however, that image from “Hitler Moves East” is an exception to the rule. At least judging by the Corcoran’s retrospective—which, despite Levinthal’s long career, is concise and well-curated—he avoids explicit violence: The horror is usually implied.

Take the bloodless ghastliness of his “Mein Kampf” series from 1993 and 1994. One eerie, nocturnelike image features ambiguous figures seemingly resting in a hole in the ground, a tableau that communicates the unspecified dread of what can barely be seen. In another image, the barrel of a rifle pokes out of a building, its shooter unseen by the viewer, forcing a terrified woman outward. In another, a portion of a face appears partly obscured behind the open door of a cattle-car train as a steel-jawed guard looks fixedly, callously in the opposite direction.

“Mein Kampf,” unlike Levinthal’s earliest work, is in color, which offers additional tools for communicating ominousness—the fiery red ether permeating a Nazi rally, for instance, and the pitiless, dark-blue sky on a grim night of forced removals. But color proves to be a two-edged sword. In “Wild West,” a 1987-to-2012 study of the dark side of America’s mythologized struggles between cowboys and Indians, the colors are bolder—so stylized, in fact, that the images somehow seem less real, and thus less powerful. Smaller images from the Western series are bathed in a bloody red glow so thick it’s hard to see what’s going on; larger images, such as a monumental-sized, midbattle portrayal of Custer’s last stand, dazzle but don’t really persuade. Even less convincing are a few images from a Civil War series, in which Levinthal doesn’t seem able to muster his usual tools to rise above the artificiality of the toys he’s deploying.

Much more successful is his “IED” series from 2008, which adapts Levinthal’s approach to contemporary conflicts typified by sandswept battlefields and furtive views through night-vision goggles. One image, featuring a pair of soldiers hurrying past a huge wall poster of Saddam Hussein, offers both a believable street scene and a knowing reference to photography as propaganda—a new and worthy iteration of themes that remain as relevant as they were when Levinthal began his line of inquiry four decades ago.