Michael Paul Smith: Behind the Scenes of Elgin Park

All it takes is one look at Michael Paul Smith’s renderings of cars, created with colored pencils, to know that he has an artistic touch. Impressive as they are, though, Michael is known for something quite different: using his building-and-car-diorama-making and photography skills to create “Elgin Park,” a Midwest town that exists only in his mind. Yes. Elgin Park is an incredibly detailed historical rendering of a place that has never existed.

Yet, it’s so real that it has:

  • Triggered long-buried memories in Alzheimer patients that they shared with their doctors
  • Soothed and calmed two children with autism so that they could sleep
  • Caused people to cry in a cathartic and uplifting manner
  • Allowed small children to connect with their grandparents in a brand new way

What is Elgin Park? It is comprised of a series of photos, uploaded to Flickr, that appear to be genuine photographs from the 1920s to 1960s. In reality, though, Michael has used forced perspective to allow the eye to perceive small die cast cars and models of buildings as full-sized ones.

A scene from the fictional Elgin Park. Photo credit: Michael Paul Smith.

A scene from the fictional Elgin Park.
Photo credit: Michael Paul Smith.

 

A photo that reveals the "secret" behind the scene. Photo credit: Michael Paul Smith.

The “secret” behind the scene.
Photo credit: Michael Paul Smith.

This Yahoo video does a great job of providing a visual overview of Elgin Park – and it’s been appreciated, Michael points out, by an incredible number of people, as the 55-million-plus view mark indicates. “The photos,” he says, “clearly touch a very deep chord from all walks of life and cultures.”

Although Elgin Park is based on Michael’s hometown of Sewickley, Pennsylvania, it isn’t a replica of the town. Confusing? In an interview with the Internet Craftsmanship Museum, he defines the crux, scope and the appeal of Elgin Park: “For me, it conjures up the essence of ‘Small Town.’ It also says stability; a bit isolated but not desolate. Family. Unlocked doors. Home. Sewickley itself is only one square mile and touches the Ohio River. Granted, every town has its 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 in my models and photographs.”

Although the pictures are amazing, what’s even more amazing is that Michael is not a professional photographer (although he clearly is a skilled photographer). Nor does he use Photoshop or any other computer software to add anything to his compelling illusions (more about Photoshop later).

Thanks to an interview with Michael, (along with a written document of his life’s journey that he graciously provided to Advance Auto Parks), we can share how Elgin Park came to be.

A look back in time

Michael Paul Smith was born in Sewickley, a small town about seven miles north of Pittsburgh, in 1950 and he grew up with four siblings. “My childhood,” Michael shares, “was pleasant and loving but, due to my extreme shyness, I kept to myself using my imagination to draw and build things.” By the time he was in grade school, he collected cigar boxes to “create interiors out of found objects. Miniatures, dollhouses, dioramas, train layouts and the like had and still have a mesmerizing effect on me.” To feed this hobby, he started going to flea markets and yard sales (and he also picked trash!) at the age of ten.

By the time Michael was that age, he also began noticing his father’s curiosity about the houses they passed – and that trait was clearly passed on to Michael. At the age of twelve, he assembled his first model car: a 1963 Chevy Impala, with working headlights, no less! He entered this model in the annual Fisher Body Craftsman Guild car design competition, held by General Motors for boys ages 11 to 19. Now, if this were a movie, Michael would win the competition at the very last second – or the contest would otherwise be a life-altering event. In reality, he never heard back from the contest organizers about his first entry – or about any of the other entries that he sent over the next few years. C’est la vie.

When he was sixteen, the family moved to Worcester, Massachusetts. Ironically enough, his high school counselor told Michael that he had “no apparent creative talent that could be used for employment” and recommended that he skip college and work in the steel mills that formed the heart of Pittsburgh’s economy. (This is an especially odd response from the counselor given that Michael had won more than one art contest in high school and, one year, someone apparently loved his painting so much that he stole it.)

Fortunately, Michael ignored his counselor’s advice. He completed The School of Worcester Art Museum’s three-year program, a “well known school” where he learned how to “stretch canvas, make pigments” and more.

He went on to become an advertising art director (that “produced a heart attack at 33. Clearly this was a sign to get out of that profession”). Afterwards, he applied to be a model maker. At the time, this was a good field to enter; a model maker would take a 2-D drawing created by an architect and craft a 3-D version so that the architect could see how it would look. Sometimes, a model maker fleshed out only one section of a building; other times, the entire building.

The first place where he applied for a model maker’s job wasn’t too impressed with his lack of experience. Undeterred, Michael kept applying until one shop that operated out a basement let him work on a one-week trial basis – and then hired him full time. “The owner,” Michael remembers, “didn’t even know my last name when he wrote me my first paycheck.

Later, Michael worked at an international firm as a model maker, working there for 18 years. However, this industry has taken some “serious economic hits over the years. What used to be a thriving business has now been reduced to freelance nomads. The age of computer generated graphics, overseas production and automated 3D model making machines has all but eliminated the field.”

But . . . you know what? Michael is definitely not a one-note song! He has many other talents as his employment history demonstrates.

Other jobs have included:

• Wallpaper hanger (which he “really enjoyed”)
• Interior house painting (“another interesting job especially when I got to work with the client in choosing color and detail”)
• Editorial artist
• Illustrator for a textbook publisher
• House renovator
• Mailman

“And,” he concludes, “the list goes on. The best job was being part of a team that designed displays for museums such as the Smithsonian Institute and the Museum of Natural History at Harvard. All of these occupations have given me a solid foundation for my dioramas.”

Here’s what else gave Michael an advantage when it came time to create his first car diorama. From his jaunts to flea markets and yard sales, he “literally had thousands of pieces of the past.” He also collected die cast models of cars. “It dawned on me,” he says, “that I could build miniature versions of American life by creating scaled down buildings that would incorporate my die cast vehicles. Plus utilize all of the knowledge I had acquired by collecting and studying the 20th century. These scenes could be authentic down to the last detail. It was an Ah-Ha! moment.”

Behind the scenes

Michael initially sketches out the structure that will appear in a diorama. “If the building is too unusual,” he says, “it will overwhelm the photograph; therefore a prototypical style of a certain era is chosen.”

A glimpse at materials used.  Photo credit: Michael Paul Smith.

A glimpse at materials used.
Photo credit: Michael Paul Smith.

 

He uses gatorboard for the walls; this material is a piece of thin film surrounded by two sheets of resin-coated paper. He likes this material because it’s lightweight and durable, simple to cut with a knife and easily sanded and painted. He then refines the buildings to add clapboard, brick, stucco and trim. He uses the following tools: an X-acto knife, a sanding block, a ruler and a “few other assorted hand held tools.”

“Improving,” Michael continues, “is the name of the game for me. A model maker I used to work for gave me some sage advice: If you can’t make it convincingly, then don’t make it at all, because it will stick out like a sore thumb.”

So, he takes his time choosing just the right materials and uses snow as an example to demonstrate his process. Michael had experimented with numerous products until he found exactly the right one: baking soda. “It was the correct scale,” he says, “it drifted convincingly and had a bit of sparkle to it. Baby powder, flour, salt, sugar . . . they just didn’t pass the test.”

Here are other strategies that he uses to recreate a sense of realism:

• He rolls car tires in the baking soda for a snowy effect.
• To add dirt to roads, he vacuums his rugs and then filters what’s been collected until it’s just right.
• He can also make something dirtier in appearance by adding powered chalk.
• He includes water in his scenes with milk trucks, as the early ones carried blocks of ice and left puddles of water wherever they
traveled.

Here is what Michael had to say about how he backlights his night-time projects:

• All of the lighting is done with 40 or 60 watts bulbs.
• Also, white or orange Christmas tree lights work well to illuminate the interiors of the models.
• LED lights add another level of interest to lighting the scenes.
• “I’m not a technical person, so having strobes, umbrella reflectors and light meters are lost on me. I can barely figure out my
camera.” (We at Advance Auto Parts are having a hard time believing the last statement but . . . that’s what he said, so we’re
sharing it with all of you.)

Here’s more about the camera: “What has become a joke is the fact that I have no special equipment at all. My first camera was a 3 mega pixel digital Sony. I’ve since upgraded to a 6 mega pixel and then to a 14 mega pixel Canon, because some of my work is being enlarged and printed. It’s a technical thing and not the desire to use something fancy. A dear friend of mine actually gave me an incredibly expensive camera which took extraordinary images. But they were too good for what I was trying to accomplish. To achieve a look and feel of the past, I’ve found that a camera with a lens that blurs is the way to go. Too much information in a photo defeats the retro look of Elgin Park.”

And, once, a French fashion photographer wanted more information about the lens used by Michael. When he described his simple set up, the Frenchman replied with only two words and never contacted Michael again. Those two words? “You lie.”

Eureka!

Inspiration for a photo, he shares, “usually comes out of the blue. An image in a book, a song or a random thought will trigger the urge to create something.”

He then digs through the model vehicles that he has stored away and envisions the rest of the scene to share the story that emerges in his creative mind. Sometimes, the correct era, day and/or season come to him within an hour; other times, it takes days and then he reviews books and catalogues to make sure that what he creates is accurate for the era.

“I can spend a few days or a week soaking up all of the information,” he says, ”studying wallpaper samples, paint chips, and fabric designs, listening to music of a particular era or going through old photo albums might seem like mindless activities but they lay a concrete foundation for my work.”

Other times, the more than 300 die cast car models inspire him, with features such as the tailfin, “bulbous fenders, swooping roof lines, two tone color combinations or running boards” setting his creativity into motion. For example, the running board directs his focus to the Victorian or Edwardian type of architecture, where streets may or may not have been paved, and where electricity may or may not have been available.

Another retro scene from Elgin Park. Photo credit: Michael Paul Smith.

Another retro scene from Elgin Park.
Photo credit: Michael Paul Smith.

However long it takes, once he can picture his scene, he plays around with vehicles and buildings (on his kitchen table!) to get the best setup. Again, all may come together quickly or it may need to “percolate” for a few days.

For daylight shots, he then searches for the correct outside site for the official setup and photos. This has become increasing more difficult as more and older buildings are torn down by his home.

But, once he spends about an hour to set up the scene, keeping the set as simple as possible to preserve his own energy and to allow viewers to fill in missing details – he then starts taking pictures. He typically takes 20 to 30 photographs and then chooses the best two or three to become part of Elgin Park.

Back to the subject of Photoshop

Michael will use this software tool to remove any signs that or people who get into the photo. In fact, he makes it a practice to never include people in any of his Elgin Park pictures to keep the work “universal” and to allow each viewer to insert himself or herself into a “painting, film, photography or story.” His car diorama then becomes, he explains, a “mirror for your own life.”

He’s also used Photoshop to:

• Eliminate dents and scrapes from his models
• To de-saturate the color or add a tint to create a final look

But, again, he never adds anything to the picture.

Tips to make models look “real”

Michael shares these strategies:

• Keep everything in scale. From the thickness of the shingles down to the wallpaper design and door knobs, everything must be in
the proper relationship to each other.
• Keep the camera at the eye level of the imaginary person walking around in the scene. This gives the viewer the sense that they
are in the picture.
• Movies have given us newer ways of seeing the world, such as the bird’s eye view or the low to the ground angle, so this can s
sometimes be used in diorama photography. But it must be used sparingly and for the right reason; otherwise the reality of the
shot will be compromised. Our eye is very sensitive to ‘things not looking quite right.’

He tells his stories in simple and subtle ways. For example, he might leave a car door open, or light one store while keeping the others dark. He finds inspiration for these “one frame stories” from his own experiences. “Yet,” he adds, “as personal as they might be to me, there is also room for other people to see their own meaning in the photographs.”

News of Elgin Park spreads

For years, Michael took these pictures without sharing his “odd” hobby with others. But, he eventually decided that, if he posted pictures on Flickr, he’d just be one of millions doing the same thing – so he took the plunge. For the first year or so, he got few visitors, but then British Sports Car magazine ran a short article about Michael’s work with some of his photographs in their February 2010 issue. After that, Michael says, “the viewing counter on the Flickr site started to spin. After the first million hits, I thought there might be something wrong with the counter but it still continued. Within a month, it had reached 10 million views with comments and e-mails flooding in from all over the world.”

When asked how it felt to get all of this attention, Michael says that he hadn’t expected to get recognition but, the first time someone tracked him down by phone to compliment him about his work, he “sobbed.”

“I was remembering,” Michael says, “how my counselor had said I had no talent and I had carried that around with me. Not as a ‘poor me; thing but, still. I had carried it with me.”

Here’s another experience, post-fame. “Two years ago,” he says, “a reporter called me and wanted an exclusive. He said that if I didn’t cooperate, I’d never get an interview again, that he’d make sure of that. As far as I was concerned, I was a nobody before and I would be again after my 15 minutes of fame ended, so I didn’t take what he said seriously.

“Once you get your name and work out there,” he continues, “people want a piece of you. Not in a malicious way, mind you; they just do. What really fills my heart, though, is when people write and say ‘I want to learn from you. What can you teach me?’ I answer every email and I love it when someone takes a photograph and sends it to me. That means that I clearly inspired someone to just go out there and do it.”

When asked if there are critics of his work, he replies that he occasionally gets criticism. “If someone says something derogatory, I don’t respond. I just let it hang there, hang around their own necks. Fortunately, if someone says something negative about my work online, my fans get all over them in a delightfully rabid way.”

One of his best experiences involved being asked to exhibit his work at a prestigious international show at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City. “I asked, ’why me?’ and the director said, ‘Because nobody else does what you do.’”

For this show, Michael broke his standard rule about not using actual buildings from his hometown and he recreated his childhood home from photos that his brother had saved (the actual home had been torn down). In an interview with The Culture Trip, Michael says the following about his experience: “’building your childhood home is the best form of therapy one could hope for. The memories, both good and bad, just start to flow without any safety valves.’” The four month project was “an exhausting process both physically and mentally that helped assist with several ‘buried psychological issues by the time it was completed.’ Whilst Elgin Park has never physically existed, it has become a visual treasure chest of emotions and memories – a distillation of what has already passed.”

Although shy, Michael decided to attend the premiere of the exhibit. “I was surrounded by New York celebrities,” he remembers, “wondering if I was dressed well enough and how I’d ever work the crowd. But, then my ten-year-old self emerged and I thought, ‘I can do this!’” The show was so successful that his work also appeared in Lille, France at a month-long citywide carnival.

“The entire experience was thrilling,” he sums up. “A dream come true. Yet, it didn’t change who I am and didn’t cause me to think I was someone fabulous.”

More about Michael

Michael’s early work appears in a book, Elgin Park: An Ideal American Town (2010).

“It sold well,” Michael says. He was recently contacted by someone in Germany with an interest in a second volume – and he is definitely interested – so we may be learning even more about Michael and his work. Can’t wait!

Editor’s note: Building your own work of art on four wheels requires having the best parts and tools on hand. Count on Advance Auto Parts to help keep your dream machine running right all year long. Buy online, pick up in store.

 

 

 

 

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