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Michael Paul Smith’s Model Community

Homes and storefronts glow while snow blankets the sidewalks. Classic American iron lines every street, preserved, as if never driven. In fact, the auto dealership has a full lineup of ’61 Chevy’s, right off the truck. There is a quiet calm. A rightness. You can almost smell the apple pie. This is Elgin Park, and you’d probably like living here… if only it was full-scale.

Elgin Park is the creation of Michael Paul Smith, artist and model maker. It’s a 1/24-scale world straight out of the Saturday Evening Post. Smith crafts and photographs idyllic scenes that inspire emotion, even in people who weren’t alive in the modeled time periods. You want to step into the photos, pull up a seat in the diner, and order a coffee while your Packard warms up outside.

In My Garage spoke with Smith recently, and asked him for some insight into his incredible craft.

IMG: When did you get started in model making, and what paths did you follow that led to where you’re at now?

MPS: I have always been fascinated with models and miniatures. Even in grade school I made buildings out of cigar boxes and put interiors in them. That was also true about cars and truck models. I’d put wheels on shoe boxes and cut out windows. When I discovered plastic kits in the late 50’s, it was a defining moment for me. Speed up to the 1980’s when diecast cars started to appear, and it was all downhill for me. These vehicles are my only vice.

300 diecasts sitting on a shelf might look impressive, but there was something sad about that. They needed to be put in context, and a scale building of some sort would help bring some life to them.

I found a G scale structure in the trash and decided to fix it up and add an interior. What was most important was it had to be as good as the diecast cars. So I put a huge effort into getting the details correct. When it was completed, I placed some cars around it then took some photographs.

It was an Ah-Ha! moment for me; and only a matter of time before I started to design and make my own structures. Ultimately I ended up with 15 buildings.

IMG: Can you describe how your process works for a typical scene?

MPS: When planning a scene, I look at the vehicles first. What era do I want to explore? I also look at old photographs to learn about how things looked back then. There are many little details that define an era that are now missing. Things like certain colors that were popular. How streets were set up and how cars were parked.

From all this information I start to think of what story I want to tell. What building or buildings can tell this story? Is it a night shot, snow scene or rainy day? I then mock up the scene and look at it from all angles. This becomes the frame work for the actual shoot.

The next step is to go out looking for a suitable background. Not an easy task with all the malls and housing developments around. The perfect setup is finding a field or parking lot with about a block’s worth of unobstructed view. This allows the background to be in scale with the model.

Once I’ve started to shoot though, an emotional level comes into play. That’s the magic time. I just listen to my gut feeling. If I try too hard, then more times than not, I lose my vision.

An average shoot lasts about an hour with about 20 to 30 photos taken. On average, about 2 good shots come from the whole batch.

IMG: Ever get strange reactions from people when you’re out shooting?

MPS: When I do an outside shoot, I always bring photos of my work because people have a difficult time understanding what I’m doing. Once they see the photos, a connection is made.

I always ask permission from the surrounding home owners if I can have their houses in the photograph, even if it’s only going to be a blur in the background. I had one guy who said it was alright, but then got upset for some reason. He started yelling and berating me for what I was doing.

Occasionally, a cop will show up and give me “the look”.

IMG: Tell us a little about the world you’re creating. Does it relate to a real place from your own past?

MPS: Elgin Park is the name I’ve given my town. I have no idea where it came from but it feels right. For me, it conjures up the turn of the last century. Small town. Stability. A bit isolated but not desolate. Family. Unlocked doors. Home.

My home town in Pennsylvania is Sewickley. It’s only one square mile and touches the Ohio River. Granted every town has it’s secrets and skeletons but when you walk down those tree lined streets, and hear the train whistles echoing off the hills along the river, everything seems OK. It’s that Ok-ness I try to capture.

IMG: You don’t do computer post-production? No Photoshop?

MPS: I gave myself the challenge to not use photoshop. I wanted to be able to frame everything in the camera. After I have the shot I like, though, I will sometimes adjust the color to give it a more “period” look.

Once, there was an insect on one of the diecasts and I didn’t notice it until I looked at the digital contact sheet. The shot was good, so I did use photoshop to remove it. But as a rule, photoshop is just a touch-up tool.

The camera that I use is only a 6 megapixel Sony. Anything above that takes in too much information. I had a 3 megapixel camera that took better “vintage” photos because the lens wasn’t that good.

Old film camera lenses caused a mild blur to the images, and it’s that blur that holds the key to the look of the past; at least for me. The blur ads emotional distance and mystery so you can fill in the details with your own memories. And that’s also the reason there are no people in my photos. I want the viewer to put themselves into these dreamscapes and not be distracted by other people.

IMG: How do you feel about the trend toward model rendering done exclusively on computers?

MPS: What I’ve found is people like a physical model. They can walk around it and touch it and it shares the room with them. Models play with our sense of scale. We know buildings are large, yet here is a building that’s only one foot tall and it still looks like a building. There’s also the “how did they do that” factor.

Computer generated drawings have a WOW factor, but to me they seem too perfect. This is not to say they aren’t visually powerful.

IMG: On to the cars! Do you have a favorite car you’ve used in a photo?

MPS: Some of my favorite models are the ’49 Oldsmobile, the ’51 Studebaker (I owned a real one!) the ’41 Chevy and the ’55 Ford. I really wish they would come out with a ’52 through ’54 Ford. And a Kaiser Manhattan. And a Nash. Ok, one more; A ’61 Plymouth Fury.

IMG: Deservedly, your work has received a fair amount of attention. What’s next? Any big plans you can share?

MPS: It’s so interesting about the coverage my work is getting. I really debated about putting my photos on Flickr over 2 years ago. Seriously, I didn’t think people would be interested in my hobby. This is not false modesty.

But clearly the photographs hit a nerve. I get incredibly touching comments that speak of longing and wanting to go HOME. One person wrote: “I am crying, I am crying….” This not about nostalgia. I believe the photographs let us somehow get in touch with the arc of our lives. About how much time has passed in such a short period of time.

I’ll continue with my photography and models because this is a real passion of mine, but I’ve set up a website, with the help of friends, that will be more than just a photo gallery. I’m working on a “show and tell” section plus a way to give people access to prints of my work.

Also, there are other creative interests I have that can be featured there. The site is called Visit Elgin Park.

Just recently, I’ve started to do volunteer teaching and that puts me on fire. Kids are starving to be creative. They want to build and draw and photograph without restrictions. They’re still close to the source and haven’t been blinded yet to what is possible.

Enjoy more of Michael Paul Smith’s model photography on his Flickr page.

13 Comments

  1. Very Cool!!! that must take a lot of patience.

  2. Seeing Michael Smith’s work is a breath of fresh small town air. It’s incredible. The details are inspiring and the fact that he doesn’t use photochop is nothing short of amazing. It’s funny how real they appear, I find myself staring at them for long periods of time and despite knowing they are models and on my computer screen, I want to reach out and touch them. I hope his work finds its way to a gallery or museum. Such talent needs to be shared so others can find the same feelings and inspirations we’ve all had wistfully visiting Elgin Park for a little while.

  3. Really very cool, love it!!

  4. How incredibly cool. The photos are remarkable in the way they reproduce the past in a very believable manner.

    I love it and only wish he could find it in his heart to do a few French cars in his scenes.

    My dad had a nice 56′ Virgil Exner Chrysler Imperial that I could imagine in these photos also.

    Keep up the great work Michael.
    Denis

    • @Denis I got a chuckle when you mentioned the French cars, I was hoping to see an early Corona or Fairlady roadster in there!!!!

  5. BUCK MICKEY says:

    hey paul,
    i’ve been a photographer all of my life, car enthusiast, built models, & i’m here to say i’m very impressed. we would all like to leave our mark on the world, & history. —— you’ve done it son, keep – on truckin. regards, buck

  6. This is excellent, thank you for sharing with us. Very impressive, gives you the feel of the real deal.

  7. Brad Coombs says:

    Michael, My dad had a 47 Buick convertible and I have been trying to find a die cast model. Can you tell me were to look for one?

    Brad Coombs

  8. Marion Caldwell says:

    Great! Wonderful! My dad was a very conservative guy but he once bought a yellow Dodge convertible (Don’t remember the year but was circa ’47). He liked to drive with the top down. My mother would light his cigars and hand them to him. One time she lit one with the car lighter and casually threw the lighter out of the car. It was a couple of miles before he realized what she had done.

  9. michael , I do the same thing as you do. my photos arent as professional as yours . been doing this 1963 in my senior yr. in h.s. if you would send me your email, love to send you pics. want your opion . we can compare notes. especially your furniture . did you make all these items? have not seen these before.

    • Bob Hoots says:

      For someone who would like to get started in this hobby, I would appreciate any help and information regarding specific brands for die cast cars like those used in these photos. Also, any books, videos, and material that help a newby. Thanks.

      Bob

  10. Bob Hoots says:

    For someone who would like to get started in this hobby, I would appreciate any help and information regarding specific brands for die cast cars like those used in these photos. Also, any books, videos, and material that help a newby. Thanks.

    Bob

  11. Bob Hoots says:

    I tried sending a message to you regarding brands of die cast cars and books, videos and/or material helping a person enter the hobby. I received a message saying I had duplicate comments but this was the first time I had sent any comment. Please bear with me in my search for information.i respect your skills and would like to know more. Respectfully.

    Bob

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