Model-Maker Michael Paul Smith Is Building Worlds In Elgin Park
Words: Brandon Flannery
Many of us played with toy cars as children, creating fantastic worlds for them to drive through. Limited only by our imagination, shoeboxes and paths of lego pieces or pencils became houses and streets as real as any movie scene. Nearly every model builder has had thoughts of making a realistic diorama once a car was complete.
Artist Michael Paul Smith has taken these thoughts to the next level, creating stunning scenes in miniature and then photographing them with amazing results. He calls his miniature realm Elgin Park, and without any hints or information, it’s hard for viewers to tell what is real and what is not. Look again at some of the photos. Things are not what they appear.
A native of Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, Smith grew up building small dioramas out of cigar boxes and found objects in his spare time. He was mesmerized by miniatures, dollhouses, dioramas, and train layouts. After suffering a heart attack while serving as art director for an advertising firm, he decided to follow his passion and become a professional model maker. He was only 33.
Smith interviewed at several model shops throughout Boston before landing a “trial week” with a small company. By the end of the week, the owner, who didn’t even know Michael’s last name, was so impressed that he hired him on full-time. In those days, models and miniatures were widely used in advertising, TV and movies. It was a booming business that has sadly been reduced to a handful of freelance nomads. The age of computer-generated graphics, overseas production, and automated 3D model-making machines has all but eliminated the field.
As demand for model builders receded, Smith found work in other vocations. Through the years, he’s been a wallpaper hanger, a newspaper editorial artist, an interior house painter, and a mailman. He says his best job was helping a team of designers create displays for the Smithsonian Institute and Harvard’s Museum of Natural History. He credits each job as a building block to his current position and feels that being a mailman really helped him understand city topography, architecture, and scenery.
Smith began collecting 1/24th-scale model cars to build in his spare time. The diecast car market emerged in the 1990s and brought detailing that was so intricate and previously unseen in any replicas. An ad for the new Franklin Mint 1958 Chevy Impala really caught Smith’s attention. Though expensive, it was more detailed than he could ever hope to accomplish with his own model kits. More cars from the Franklin Mint were soon released, followed by offerings from a new company called The Danbury Mint, which took the detailing to another level. A little later, West Coast Precision Diecasts began producing only Chevrolet vehicles, which were a must for collectors, because they offered models that Franklin and Danbury didn’t.
They were expensive, around $170-200 each, and have become even more so today, often fetching over a thousand dollars for rare models as the industry’s move to a larger 1/18th scale has all but halted 1/24th production. Smith collected them feverously and today has more than 300 cars.
“If I had gotten started in the larger scale, this would all have a different outcome,” he says.
Though his collecting has slowed, sometimes he’s able to score an eBay deal on ones needing repair.
Eventually, Smith decided to create little scenes of American life to go along with his diecasts and began crafting buildings and scenery items from scratch at his kitchen table. To this day, he doesn’t have a dedicated workshop or high-tech tools. All of his models are made with an X-acto knife, a sanding block, a ruler and a few other small hand tools. The buildings are made from a thin foam panel sandwiched between two sheets of resin-coated paper, called gatorboard. Lightweight basswood is then used for the doors, windows, and other features. Details like studio cameras, signs and ladders are also scratchbuilt from various common materials.
A fellow model maker once told him that if he couldn’t make it convincingly, he shouldn’t make it at all, because it will stick out like a sore thumb. Michael has chased this piece of advice enthusiastically. Over the years, he has learned which details he can omit — the eye tends to fill in details that it knows should be there — and which ones he has to nail. Take snow, for instance. Scaled down, it has to fall and settle convincingly. By sifting a number of products over models, he discovered that baking soda worked the best. It was the correct scale, it drifted convincingly, and it had a bit of sparkle to it. Baby powder, flour, salt, sugar — they just didn’t work properly.
All lighting is done with 40- or 60-watt bulbs placed overhead and orange or white Christmas tree lights for model interiors. Outdoor shoots use the natural light, and falling shadows to help create the desired effect.
Photography is another area learned by trial and error. Smith’s simply not a professional photographer. There are no strobes, umbrellas, reflectors, or light meters used. Additionally, other than a slight desaturation or tint adjustment, very little post-production work is done on the computer with programs like Photoshop. What the camera captures, the image uses. His friends urged him to upgrade to a more expensive camera, and while it worked very well, it worked a little too well, and the the images lost some of their magic. For his purposes, a camera with a little blur to the lens actually works better. Cameras of the day weren’t the precision digital machines that we have today. They were soft and had their own imperfect qualities. To make a convincing scene, it needs to be photographed in a manner that also replicates the images from that era. An inexpensive camera does the trick.
Smith says in the beginning, his vintage cars were the inspiration for his scenes. He wanted to place them in their time frames. Slowly, memories of his childhood began to gain influence; a hazy, wondrous innocent time of creativity and fun. As he did more, and with the closing of the 20th century, he realized he was also preserving the past in his own unique fashion. Elgin Park never existed, but within this fictitious town, a distillation of memories and emotions could be depicted. He calls the scenes a “One Frame Story” with implied plot lines of a car door being left open, or a single shop lit up in a dark street. The decision to keep the scenes free of people is deliberate to keep the work universal.
“Any time you can put yourself into a painting, a film, a photograph or story,” he says, “it then becomes a mirror of your own life.”
Incredibly enough, Smith didn’t share his creations for many years. He figured few people would appreciate his “odd hobby” or have a desire to look at photographs of model buildings and metal cars. On a cautious whim, he decided to upload some of his photos to Flickr.
“Rationalizing the fact that I would just be one of millions of people posting on the web, there was nothing to lose,” he says. “So I took the plunge.”
Over the course of the first year, his page logged around a thousand hits. Then in 2010, a British sports car magazine ran a few of his images, and within a few days of the issue hitting the stands, his Flickr page counter had over a million hits. Thinking it was broken, he watched in disbelief as it climbed to over 10 million within a month and emails flooded in from all over the world. Yahoo/Flickr did a three-minute piece on his work, which created another wave of interest. There has also been two books and a short film shown at film festivals from around the world about Elgin Park. To date, his site has cleared the 86 million mark.
All of the waves of attention have been a bit of a ride for Smith. Model building is mostly a solitary hobby, and he’s a bit of a self-professed recluse. He says he doesn’t even own a car. But he’s found joy in knowing that his images have preserved the past, and have moved so many people.
“One guy in particular sent me an email, a doctor” he says. “He said that showing my images to some of his Alzheimer’s patients created a spark of recognition inside them and they began to talk. It triggered things that opened up a dialog between them, and that truly moves me. To know my work at the kitchen table could affect, and maybe even help somebody, is very special for me. That wasn’t the intention, but I think it’s a wonderful bonus.”
To see more, check out Elgin Park on line and follow the links: