Artist Uses Models To Recreate Small Town America In Astonishing Detail
Meet the Mayor of Elgin Park
Welcome to the quaint town of ‘Elgin Park’, Population: 0
Elgin Park can't be found on any map; it's a mix of memories and imagination from artist Michael Paul Smith. He carefully creates scenes using models in real locations to vividly capture lost moments of Americana. With simple tricks, natural light, real outdoor backdrops and a $200 point-and-shoot digital camera the small town of Elgin Park has slowly come to life.
More than 15 model buildings and 300 high-quality diecast model cars set against handmade buildings and streets stand for Elgin Park. You’ll never see people in photos of the town however; Smith only created this world, its up to your imagination to fill it.
Romancing the Past
It was Smith's passion for classic cars that drew him to the hobby of collecting model cars.
"Even as a kid, every year when the new cars would come out in September, I would go to the car dealerships," Smith said. "Even in kindergarten. It just fascinated me. It gave me the thrill that something better might be happening."
He began collecting the models in the 80s, and even drove a '51 Studebaker in the 1990s. He collects anything from before 1967, when design became less his style.
The highly detailed diecast models used in Smith's vignettes are mainly from The Danbury Mint, The Frankin Mint and West Coast Precision Diecasts. The cars are works of art. The vehicles are so well recreated they have working parts, like glove boxes that actually open and steering wheel which turn the wheels of the car. The models even have brake lines and plugged engines.
The cars are all painted in historically accurate colors and have authentic tire treads for the decade the real car would have been produced.
Office of the Coldspot Warehouse
Smith carries over the detailed and craftsmanship of the diecast models into the model buildings he creates for Elgin Park.
Though he rarely features the interiors of buildings, every room features rugs, working lights and other realistic appointments. This is the office inside of the Coldspot Warehouse. For perspective, the doorways are five inches tall.
View from a Second Story WindowIn this photograph, Smith has the cars parked seemingly dangerously close to a passing train. This is where his extensive research into the era he is recreating comes in. He collects vintage photographs to help him achieve authenticity. The reference material is also why you won't see any people in his pictures.
"When I see a person in the photo, I attach myself to the person. Why are they there? What’s their story? I don’t include people so the view can then put themselves in it," Smith said. The reference photos help transport him to a similar, although riskier, time.
"It was refreshing to see this type of casualness compared to our now overprotected way of life," he wrote of this piece on his Flickr page.
The Reality Behind the Magic
The technique used by Smith to create his realistic photos is called 'forced perspective', a process used extensively in early film making. The optical illusion makes objects appear farther away, closer, larger or smaller than it actually is. The realism of the empty streets gives some viewers an unsettling feeling, which is just fine with Smith.
"I want the viewer to get an internal dialogue going. It makes it more mysterious and provocative," he said.
Right Here in Elgin Park!
There is also room for humor in Elgin Park. Here a UFO has crash-landed on the dead end street 'Broady road'. While his photos never feature people, his descriptions of the scenes do involve the kind of characters you might find in a small American town in the late 1940's. On his Flickr page, Smith describes the initial reactions of Nick Florian, Chad Warwick and Sheila Burk when they found the crashed saucer.
"It was sticking in the ground without any damage," recalled Nick. "And there wasn't any sound coming from it. Come to think of it, the whole place was pretty damn quiet."
Smith says he must be a frustrated writer at heart, as characters have begun to feel real in his photographs.
"The stories just happen, the characters take on a life of their own. I just consciously try to think of what their names are to give me a hint," Smith said.
Photo Setup for Tuckers in the Mist
Indoor shoots can sometimes be more of a hassle then his outdoor pieces. This set up of five Tuckers in a garage was one of his most difficult shots Smith has created. It took three days and over a hundred shots to get the early morning light to stream just so through the windows and skylights. He eventually balanced part of the set outside of his window in an effort to capture the right mood he was looking for.
The cars featured in his work are mostly 'orphan' cars – brands like Packard, Tucker, Studebaker and Nash that survived Detroit's Big Three's long arms in the 30's and 40's. These were the cheaper models driven by the working class families in Sewickley, Pa., Smith's boyhood town. It was while walking around Sewickley that he perfected his eye for detail.
"When I was a little kid, I would walk home as quietly as possible and take alleys and try not to be seen and pretend I was the last person on Earth," Smith said. "I liked that feeling, because I could really observe things when I was left alone. And it shows up in the photographs."
Five Tuckers in the Mist
The shot did work out, and the effect is spectacular. The scene seems lifted from a bygone era. Smith says reactions to his work have been varied, but mainly positive.
"People reacted to the small town feel," Smith said. "People tell me ‘even though I live in the city, when I see these photos it feels like I’m coming home'."