The Internet Craftsmanship Museum Presents:

Michael Paul Smith

Added to museum: 6/10/10

Recreating the past with photos of a town that never was

Michael Paul Smith—self portrait (Click on photo to view a larger image.)

Introduction

Many people build models and take photos of them. Few put so much time, effort and craftsmanship into the project that the resulting photos are totally believable. Michael Paul Smith has taken it a step further and created an imaginary town from memories of his youth. His photos tell a story that takes you back to that time and place.

In late 2009, the photos on Michael Paul Smith’s Flickr Photostream web site were viewed up by someone who sent a link on to a few friends. Those friends forwarded it to several more people and they all forwarded it to their friends. Before long, Michael’s page, which had been receiving about 200 hits a day suddenly went to over 20 million views by January, 2010. In March, an article that ran in the New York Times took Michael’s notoriety to an even larger audience. One of the senders of the e-mail forwarded a copy to the Craftsmanship Museum, and so we learned of Michael’s ability to create totally realistic but imaginary scenes through the use of excellent 1/24 scale models and careful photography. Though there are other excellent model makers out there, Michael has combined his skills and photography and architectural model making with accurate period research and a large collection of high quality diecast model cars to create a world of small town America in the 1930’s to the 1960’s that many people consider “the best of times.”

 The photos that recreate this imaginary town of Elgin Park are believable not only because the backgrounds, lighting and subject are expertly integrated, but also because of the extensive and thoroughly researched details in each scene. In addition, Michael has taken great pains to study what makes an old photo look like an old photo, and he has used the filters in PhotoShop to get the look of an old black and white, sepia tone or KodaChrome slide, further enhancing the realism. (By the way, he does not use PhotoShop to alter the hardscape elements in the photo.)

You will soon notice one thing about the photos—there are no people. Michael does this on purpose, allowing you to put yourself in the scene or imagine what will happen next. The cars and the buildings are actually the stars of the shots. He uses cars from his extensive collection of Danbury Mint and Franklin Mint die cast autos and trucks to populate the scenes. A 1951 Studebaker Starlight coupe might be parked in front of a 1930’s craftsman style bungalow, or a row of new 1961 Chevy convertibles might be lined up in front of a car dealer.

Freedom, PA...or it could be the town where you or your parents grew up. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

The backgrounds of trees, factories or houses look real because they are. Michael sets his models up on a card table near the street or in a parking lot and lines up the camera angle and horizon to perfectly match that of the model, getting the perspective just right. This also means trees and telephone poles in the background are slightly out of focus compared to the models, just as they would be in a real photo. The lighting is just right, because the natural sunlight lights both the background and the model at the same angle. Michael also does night scenes, which are usually photographed inside his small apartment using a very simple lighting setup. Often just a single 60-watt bulb and a few well placed LED lights do the job. He is also able to duplicate the moods of different weather conditions, seasons and times of day with streets wet from rain or curbs drifted with snow made from carefully applied baking soda.

We have chosen a number of photos from Michael’s Flickr Photostream that show both how some of the models are made and how the photo looks when done. You can view all of his work by using the link below. He has started a web site just to honor the imaginary town of Elgin Park at www.VisitElginPark.com where you will find a link to where you can purchase prints of some of his photo prints and postcards at http://elginpark.smugmug.com.

Michael is also an accomplished artist, having created some beautiful paintings and pencil renderings. Some of his work has been used to illustrate children’s books and in other commercial applications. He submitted the following information on how and why he creates these inspiring images from his models.

The models, the pictures and the magic

By Michael Paul Smith

It's the mid-1950s in Elgin Park, somewhere in the American Midwest. Dads shiny new Ford is parked outside the family bungalow. Even the black and white treatment of the photo puts you right back to a time when everything was OK. You probably have photos in a family album that look just like this...except this is a photo of a model. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

My fictional scale-model town of Elgin Park is based on my hometown of Sewickley Pennsylvania. I have no idea where the name Elgin Park came from, but it feels right. 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.

The original thought was to recreate my home town as closely as possible, but the Artist in me realized everything would have more emotional impact if the buildings had a universal appeal to them. (Sewickley has a good example of every type of small town architecture from the last two centuries.) So it became my goal to just try to capture the flavor of that place.

A start in architectural models

I worked in an architectural model shop for a number of years with just one other person. My boss was a technical genius. He could make anything. He did the math in his head then just made it perfect. My work, on the other hand, is not perfect but it has an emotional punch to it. Together, we made a great team.

The shop itself had one decent table saw, a mounted belt sander, a crummy drill press plus a really awful band saw. Later we bought a drum sander. That was it. X-acto blades did the bulk of the work…and sanding blocks! That was the place I learned my building skills. Oddly enough, I'm just a good model maker, and I'm not being self effacing here. Before that, I had numerous jobs that all came into play while making Elgin Park. Here is a short list of previous employment: Art Director for women's retail stores, illustrator for a text book publisher, editorial artist for a Boston newspaper, wallpaper hanger, interior house painter, museum display designer, and archivist.

“Less is more” when it comes to visual information

Through all of these jobs, I learned things visually “read” better when the amount of information is kept in check. The brain / eye / emotions will fill in the details, even when there is minimum amount of data available. On the other hand, there can be too much information. When that happens, you end up with a literal representation of something and very little room for personal interpretation. The more the viewer can project themselves into something, the more powerful it becomes. For myself, it’s all about focusing on the mood and the emotional “gesture.”

Also keeping everything in scale; even colors. Just because something is red, it can be painted a different version of red, or you can even just imply that it's red. Our mind does some wonderful gymnastics to make the world coherent.

Photography

A typical outdoor setup looks simple, but lighting, background and camera angle are critical. The view through the camera lens takes the viewer to another time and place. Here are two different views with slightly different vehicle arrangements shot as the sun was going down. (Click photo to view larger image.)

When photographing a scene, I always have the viewer in mind, because I want them to be able to emotionally access the finished image. If it’s too much of my own personal baggage, then the photo just becomes a curiosity. There's a real balancing act going on in my head during a shoot.

What I learned early on, when taking these photographs, is that it's not about the individual cars or buildings. As an example: even if there’s a single car in the shot, it shouldn't say: “Hey look at me!” A case in point is the photo of the Mercury Turnpike
Cruiser outside the White Castle restaurant. That car takes up most of the image, yet the picture is about driving in the rain late at nigh…The hiss of the tires of passing cars on a wet street, the greasy light from the building’s interior we all know so well when we grab a late meal while on the road. All of the above is very personal to me, yet it’s familiar to everyone else, too, but for other reasons.

An early fascination with models and miniatures

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, trucks and train 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. 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. Having 300 diecast models sitting on a shelf might look impressive, but there is something sad about that. For myself, they needed to be put into a context, and I thought 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. The most important goal of this project 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 and photographed the scene. It was an “Ah-Ha!” moment. From the very first photo I took, I could see the inherent story-telling aspects of the “dioramas.” It was only a matter of time before I started to design and make my own structures.

All of the 15 buildings I’ve constructed are in pieces. They are not set up as a town in one room. When doing a photo shoot, I mix and match them; turn them around or temporarily add to them so they have an altered appearance. This gives me the ability to tell different stories and create different moods. It also allows for a dreamlike feel where the buildings move around in alternate locations.

The vehicles tell part of the story

The vehicles are visual cues, or lead-ins. They immediately set the “time reference,” even if you don't consciously know car design or styles. They also can let you know the type of neighborhood or scene that’s being represented. I could throw a curve to the “story” by having older vehicles lined up but then place a newer or more expensive vehicle in the same shot. You find yourself asking: “Why would this new car be here? Who owns this? What's being set up?” The background and the cars are now interacting and creating a cohesive picture.

How the buildings are made

My buildings are handmade. The main material for the basic structures is called Gatorboard. It's a 3/16 inch thick foam material sandwiched between two pieces of resin coated paper. It’s stiff, light weight, durable and can be cut with a knife. I draw up rough sketches for each building to work out some of the details, but mostly it becomes a “little bit of this and a little bit of that” kind of construction. Basswood, for trim work and furniture, is the wood of choice. It has a tight grain that is the proper scale to 1/24th scale models. Styrene plastic and Plexiglas (which comes in clear and in many translucent period colors) make up most of the exterior details. Commercial household spray paint in cans is used extensively. A matte or flat finish works best. Sometimes I use interior latex house paint as well.

Some of the steps in constructing a new building—from the first sketch to a trial photo with a truck for scale. Each building is built individually so they can be placed in different orientations to each other to create different combinations for different neighborhoods. (Click on any photo to view a larger image.) The finished results can be seen in the photo section near the bottom of this page.

 

I try to make most of the objects myself. It’s a challenge I give myself, although when I see a commercially made item that fits the bill, I don't hesitate to use it. I’m especially proud of the push mower and washing machine I made. Also, the porch glider and matching chair. Kit bashing model cars (combining parts from different kits) and trips to the jewelry making store are also a creative challenge. If you look at the photo entitled “Diner Interior Exposed” you’ll see all of the items being called out that are found objects. It’s just getting used to seeing things in a different scale.

Diner Interior Exposed. The photo on the right calls out the pieces used to create the lunch counter in the diner. The magic is in the way they are combined so you don't see what they were but rather what Michael wants them to be. (Click on either photo to view a larger image.)

For the interiors, I print up wallpaper patterns, rugs and floor liners [linoleum] from catalogs I have and vintage sites from the web. Gotta love the web!

Each building takes a few weeks to make. Some of them, with complicated or highly detailed interiors, will take longer. The shoe store has over 100 individual shoe boxes, the TV repair shop has dismantled televisions lying about and the Bungalow is completely furnished. The Bungalow roof has about 1500 hand cut shingles made from textured paper.

Planning the scene

I have a good working knowledge of architectural styles throughout the mid 19th Century and all of the 20th Century. I also have an understanding of the rhythm of how towns grow and spread. 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 direction I want to go. 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 setup and the final image. A Divco milk truck from Bordens Dairy makes a delivery stop in front of the Kenmore market. The houses and trees in the distance are real. Debris next to the curb and a puddle of water in the street add a touch of realism. (Click on either photo to view a larger image.)

Scouting the background location

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 an unobstructed view of at least 100 feet. 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 loose my vision. An average shoot lasts about an hour with about 20 to 30 photos taken. On average, about two good shots come from the whole batch. 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, the connection is made.

Shooting an outdoor scene in winter. Photo 1 shows the setup on a card table, Photo 2 shows Michael getting the height, angle and background just right and Photo 3 shows the finished result. The snow on the ground under the card table is real, but the snow on the street in the scene is baking soda. The cars give the scene an approximate date. The billboard and street light give the very simple setup all the detail your eye needs, and your imagination supplies the rest. (Click on any photo to enlarge.)

Asking permission from the surrounding home owners to have their houses in the photograph, even if it’s only going to be a blur in the background, is incredibly important. 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.”

Indoor shots are another story. Not having access to special equipment it was a matter of using what was at hand. A clip lamp with a 40 or 60 watt bulb became my lighting source. Baking soda became “snow,” “rain” was achieved by using water from the sink and “gutter dirt” was the stuff I found in my vacuum cleaner bag. Interior lighting comes about by the use of Christmas lights and small LED’s powered by batteries.

Secrets revealed...The first photo shows the LED light held in place by duct tape on the model. The second photo shows the final result of the night shot. Michael's interpretation of this image: “The Elgin movie house, built in 1927, is now 35 years old and desperately out of step with1962. Third run movies, such as First Spaceship to Venus, plus a marquee that has long lost it's red plastic letters, only add to the feeling that an Era has passed. Yet the Elgin still has dignity. I know for a fact it will survive into the 21st Century. (Click on either photo to view a larger image.)

To use or not to use PhotoShop®

After I have the shot I like, I will sometimes give it a “period” look by using filters to reduce the color or try to mimic a type of film used years ago. I gave myself the challenge to not use PhotoShop® to manipulate the physical elements of the photo. I wanted to be able to frame everything in the camera. I'm glad I stuck to that because it forces me to be observant and focused. Once, an insect landed on one of the diecast cars and I didn’t notice it until I looked at the digital contact sheet. The shot was good and I couldn’t re-do it, so I did use PhotoShop to remove it. But as a rule, PhotoShop is just a touchup tool.

The camera

The camera that I use is only a 6 megapixel Sony®. Anything above that captures too much information. I had a 3 megapixel camera that took better “vintage” photos because the lens wasn’t that good. Actual old camera lenses caused a mild blur in the photos, 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 to the photograph. And that’s also the reason why there are no people in my pictures. I want the viewers to put themselves into these landscapes and not be distracted by other people.

Why do people like scale models?

What I’ve found is that people like looking at a physical model. Models help us to put big things into manageable proportions. We can walk around them, touch them and share the room with them. (Computer generated drawings have a WOW factor, but to me they seem too perfect, although this is not to say they aren't visually powerful.) We know buildings are large, yet when you see a building that’s only one foot tall and it still looks like a building, you can understand what it's all about.

The secret to the popularity of these images

As for the photographs of the models, they bend and twist a known reality once a viewer realizes what he is seeing. Questions like, “How did you make it look real?” and “Where does the model stop and the real world begin?” always come up. The subject matter itself brings up long-forgotten thoughts or incidents. This is not always about nostalgia. I believe the photographs let us somehow get in touch with the arc of our lives. About how much has happened in such a short period of time. Many people have written that they feel a deeper story is going on in my work. It's not about the cars or the buildings per se, but of childhood, family, longing, happiness, love and sadness.

Another form of inspiration comes from trying to capture the feel of the past. There are a million tiny details, sounds, smells and vibes specific to any era that just don’t exist anymore. So my challenge is how to proceed knowing that. The solution I came up with is to use a visual shorthand: the look of building facade in the rain, a car parked up on the curb, a dimly lit street, a puddle of water reflecting light, telephone poles leaning, buildings cobbled together and the layer of “time having passed” over everything.

There is also adding details to a building that lets the viewer know a 1930’s structure was renovated in the late -50’s. Studying old photographs is priceless to what I do. Not the posed ones, but the snapshots and “out takes” in which insignificant moments in time have been captured. We all know how certain smells can bring your past back. I’ve found that to be true in the visual world, too. Colors, shapes, lighting—they all trigger responses in us. This is what I try to achieve, for these are the touch points that start us filling in our own personal details.

The play Our Town is another inspiration. When the girl who has died wants to come back and relive one more day; she's told to pick the most insignificant day so she won't be overwhelmed. Even then, the smallest, most mundane details become almost unbearable.

If you look at all my photos, you can see the learning curve in terms of getting things to look more realistic. The earlier ones have a slightly staged feeling to them and are somewhat cleaner in appearance, although this is not a bad thing. As time went on, I got braver by sprinkling dirt and dust on everything, which helped to add another level of detail. Being outside with real backgrounds and sunlight was yet another layer of reality.
There is a bit of Norman Rockwell in my earlier photos because his work mirrored what I had experienced when I was young—a safe and loving childhood. My later pictures are a bit more realistic, yet they are not fearful or emotionally gritty.

 

• See more photos on Michael Paul Smith’s Flickr Photostream page: http://www.flickr.com/photos/24796741@N05/

• This work was recently featured in the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/14/automobiles/collectibles/14SCALE.html

(Or read the text from the article below:

Michael Paul Smith poses behind one of his outdoor sets ready to photograph a winter scene where the model cars and buildings are the stars.

Michael Paul Smith

By Jim Koscs. A version of this article appeared in print on March 14, 2010, on page AU1 of the New York edition.

The images on the Flickr slide show serve up a comforting slice of mid-20th-century Americana: the local banker’s slinky '56 Lincoln Premiere reflects the summer sun outside the hardware store on Main Street. A spit-shined Divco truck delivers fresh milk from the Borden dairy. On the town’s outskirts, where rents are low and hot-rodders use the county road as a drag strip, a custom '55 Ford gets a set of loud pipes at a one-bay speed shop.  

Like photographs pulled from shoeboxes in dusty attics, the images form a parade of memories that, one by one, reveal the focal points and quiet corners of the small town of Elgin Park.

The memories, and the images on the Flickr photo-sharing site, belong to Michael Paul Smith. They’ve made his “town” a tourist destination, attracting about 20 million views, all arriving through cyberspace, since January.

You won’t find Mr. Smith in Elgin Park — in a corporal sense, he resides in Winchester, Mass., just north of Boston — nor is the town on any map. It is not based on Elgin, Ill., or any other Elgin. Rather, Elgin Park is an imaginary melting pot of a steel mill town where the calendar is frozen at 1964.

Mr. Smith posted his first Elgin Park images about two years ago; for some time, they were attracting only about 200 views a day. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear — someone in the Flickr community clicked on the slide show feature and then sent the link to others — the images began to spread virally in January. At times, daily page views approached 750,000, Mr. Smith said.

What has captivated online visitors are photos of scale-model sets that look improbably lifelike, down to the period-correct signs, glints of sunshine and the natural weathering of storefronts. The realistic quality is a testament not only to the accuracy of the featured model cars from Mr. Smith’s collection, but also to his skills at architectural model-making and photography, along with his love for detail.

Mr. Smith, 60, whose résumé also includes wallpaper hanger, illustrator, painter, museum display designer, advertising art director, amateur historian and photographer, has become an Internet phenomenon. It was, he said, an accident. He was just looking for something fun to do with his collection of 1/24-scale diecast car and truck models—some 300 altogether, mostly purchased from the Danbury Mint over the last 20 years.

Recreating his boyhood memories seemed a good place to start. Mr. Smith scratch-built a dozen or so scale-model buildings, which he mixes and matches to create many different sets. These he populated with his cars, carefully choosing the appropriate models based on what he calls “the dialogue they have with each other.” He photographed his sets against outdoor backdrops in and around Winchester, blending the backgrounds — distant buildings, trees, utility lines — into the frames.

“I don’t have to travel far,” he said. “Any time I find a parking lot with a block-long view, there’s a site.”

Mr. Smith estimates by eye the proper distance of his sets from their outdoor backdrops. “It’s all by trial and error,” he said, “moving a set around, watching how shadows fall.” He spends about an hour on each shoot, which usually produces two or three usable photos. (He has done about 200 shoots.)

Mr. Smith describes his photos as stories. Each is a self-contained miniature play, a window into his memories and imagination. A nondescript edifice that he noticed while scouting locations became the “Research Building.” The 1958 Chrysler model he photographed in the nearby “parking lot” might belong to the head of a space program project.

That executive is nowhere to be seen. Elgin Park is full of shiny American cars from the ’40s to the mid-’60s, but there’s not a driver or pedestrian in sight. The omission is deliberate.

“I don’t put people in my photos,” Mr. Smith said. “I want viewers to put themselves into te scenes. I’m creating a mood, something familiar in the viewer’s mind.” While no people are visible in the photos, he has managed to give Elgin Park a sense of humanity, as if at any moment someone will step out of a store and drive away in a car.

The more ways he rearranged his sets, and the more photos he posted on Flickr, the more Mr. Smith could feel a town was emerging. “One day, it just hit me: this is ‘Elgin Park,’” he said. “I didn’t know where that came from.”

Driving Mr. Smith’s creation of Elgin Park were his memories of Sewickley, Pa., a real steel-mill town a few miles north of Pittsburgh. He spent his first 17 years there, and it still holds his heart. “Elgin Park is not an exact re-creation of Sewickley,” he explained, “but it does capture the mood of my memories.”

Visiting Sewickley, however, would be difficult for Mr. Smith, as he does not own a car. The man with 300 scale models, each of them originally priced at $100 or more, chuckles at the irony. He once owned one of his favorites, a 1951 Studebaker, but now relies on neighbors to lend him vehicles for photo shoots.

Mr. Smith said he did not know, nor could Flickr identify, the person who set off the worldwide rush to Elgin Park. A Flickr spokeswoman, Erica Billups, pointed out that any member of the site could share the work of another using the built-in tools. “As these links are shared, they can become viral, and a member’s set may see a spike in page views,” she said.

Mr. Smith’s page views certainly spiked. He has also received as many as 1,200 e-mail messages and posted comments in a day.

While surprised by the response to Elgin Park, Mr. Smith said he thought he understood its appeal. “Our past is a powerful draw, and in so many ways we try to capture it in order to explain it to ourselves,” he said. A few of his Flickr visitors have extended their travels from the virtual community of Elgin Park to the real town of Sewickley.

Most visitor comments posted on Mr. Smith’s Flickr page are positive. A few that are not accuse Mr. Smith of “Photoshopping” his sets. But he insists that his only use of Adobe Photoshop is to apply filters that give some photos an older look. That is not random; Mr. Smith has spent much time researching the evolution of color film during the decades he portrays. His photography tools are relatively low-tech — a six-megapixel Sony digital camera and an 11-year-old Apple® eMac.

Although drawn to American cars of the '30s to the '60s, Mr. Smith does not call himself a car buff. “As a teenager, I was a car enthusiast for the design, not so much the horsepower,” he said.

He fondly remembers his first model car, though, an AMT three-in-one plastic kit his father gave him for his 12th birthday. It was a 1963 Chevy Impala with working headlights. Inspired by the Chevy, he entered the annual Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild car design competition, conducted by General Motors for boys 11 to 19 to design future vehicles. The young Mr. Smith sent submissions for a few years but never won.

He did win art contests in high school, and said he felt he had received the highest compliment when someone stole a winning painting: “In my mind, I could always paint another one.”

His guidance counselor, however, suggested looking to the local mills rather than to the art world. “I didn’t take that advice to heart, but I didn’t have a plan, either,” he said. “So I just kept drawing and painting.”

Mr. Smith’s family moved to Worcester, Mass. in 1967. After high school, he completed a three-year certificate program at the Worcester Art Museum and landed a $10,000-a-year job designing fashion store displays. His nonpursuit of an art career landed him jobs designing museum displays and illustrating fifth-grade textbooks.

His last major job was assistant model builder for Kling Stubbins, an architectural engineering firm in Cambridge. He “animated” the models, adding the paint, detail and scenery. Laid off a year ago, he was recently rehired to be the firm’s part-time archivist.

Over the years, Mr. Smith said, he contacted the Danbury Mint to gauge whether the model car producer was interested in his work. He got no official response, he said.

In a telephone message, Jerry March, a spokesman for the Danbury Mint, said: “We’ve seen his photos, and they’re spectacular. They’re terrific. But there’s no business relationship. He’s just a very good customer.”

Mr. Smith has stopped buying model cars, he said, but nonetheless Elgin Park has more stories to tell. An old unused railroad spur that he sees on his daily train commute has inspired his next set. “I’ve already purchased inexpensive, correct-scale boxcars,” he said. He’s looking forward to choosing just the right cars to complete the scene.

Here are some examples of Michael Paul Smith's work:

(Click photos for larger images.)

Bud Renger's Coldspot freight depot—Shown above were some of the shots of this buiding under construction. Here you can see it placed on a folding table with a backdrop of railroad line and trees in Michael's actual hometown of Sewickley Pennsylvania; his home town and the inspiration for Elgin Park. Michael plans to add an overhanging roof on the loading dock area to give the building a different look for future photos.
The final two photos show a color and black and white image derived from the setup.
Details of the Coldspot freight depot, outside on the loading dock and inside in the freight office. Though Michael calls this a "bare bones" model, the results of the photos above with vehicle models in place look quite realistic.
Michael works on a model house that will become part of one of his scenes from the past. The house here is in its early stage of construction before exterior surface detail is applied.

 

Elgin Sales takes delivery of a new model car, a 1939 Ford Deluxe Coupe. Of this car Michael says, “This car was the Darling of the 1938 World’s Fair. It symbolized speed, style and optimism. Even when it left the showroom and became part of everyday life, it still had an air of things to come.” 
    

The bungalow—This small home is typical of the era and is fully furnished. This series of photos shows some of the construction of the model. The stucco texture of the walls was achieved by daubing multiple layers of flat latex house paint over the whole structure. One photo shows a test shot of the back porch structure to see if the detail looks realistic when photographed.

The final shot includes a hand placing a Studebaker at the curb...kind of startling but a good way to give you an idea of the actual scale.

Here are four different shots that include the bungalow, each giving an entirely different look to the subject by using different angles, different backgrounds, different vehicles and varying color and black and white treatments of the photo.

 

Key details in the photos are what give the image authenticity. Each appliance is made by hand. Here we see an old style wringer washer compared to more modern machines from the Laundromat. A counter in a TV repair shop holds a disassembled television. A bread mixer goes in the bakery. Enough detail is included so that your eye supplies the rest to make it totally believable.

Details inside the Barber shop. Note the vintage coke machine, water cooler, ashtray and folded newspaper on the chair.
An economical 1960 Corvair in the showroom points out the new trend in cars, while the huge fins of a gas-guzzling late 1950’s model outside at the curb remind us of the past.
  A custom Ford is on the rack at Dink’s Speed Shop ready for a new muffler system. Michael first shot the picture using a car with custom fender skirts in the rear and it just didn’t look right to him. He removed the fender skirt and fabricated a chrome “spear” for trim so the shot looked better. The unusual fender skirt had been too much of a focal point and distraction in the photo. It's the little things that count.
Elaine’s Beauty Salon sits between the radio and TV repair shop and the shoe store. A two-tone Ford convertible and a Studebaker sit at the curb out front.
These two photos show the setup and final image for “J&L Steel,” a night shot done inside that evokes a Pennsylvania steel town with the glowing night sky in the background. Of this shot Michael says, “Here you can see the size of the set and how it’s really quite cobbled together. This shot was taken right before I poured water all over the road. With the overhead room light turned off,
the only light source is the 60 watt bulb aimed low at the buildings. The buildings themselves each have one 10 watt, white Christmas tree light in them. Nothing fancy here.”
A second shot of Freedom, PA (see photo in story above). This one uses the same set but with different vehicles and a different angle. Placement of the set in front of the real background and camera angle are key to making it look right.
Michael notes, “Here’s the glamour shot of the 1957 Mercury Turnpike Cruiser, which was one of the largest automobiles ever produced. Measuring 20 feet long, it was a veritable living room with turn signals. The scale model White Tower Diner was a perfect match with the car. I used LED lights in the interior of the building, to give it a florescent glow. The exterior illumination is from a single 40 watt bulb aimed low.”
The Orbit Ice Cream stand and a 1959 Chevy—both illustrate the pinnacle of 1950’s styling.
The simple indoor setup for a shot called “Night Sky” and the effective photo that resulted.
The Borden’s Dairy truck makes an early delivery to the Superette. These two images show two different ways to treat the final image—as a black and white or as a color photo with the feeling of vintage Kodachrome.
The setup and the final photo for “Saturday, 10 PM.” A light snow (of baking soda) has just fallen on the town. A few tracks, a little wind-blown snow and a small drift at the curb give the right look.
 

Changes through the years:

(Left) It’s Saturday night and the county fair has the carbon arc search lights lighting up the sky. Smoke was used again as a “special effect” to help make the sky look less flat. 

(Right) Now it’s 23 years later and the town has slowly changed. The theater was torn down and a 2-story retail building was put up in its place. The Chamber of Commerce allowed a large billboard to be placed on the Gilmore gas station roof, hoping to bring in more revenue through advertising. Mr. Kenmore bought the corner store and renovated it. An outside phone booth was installed across the street. Automobiles became larger and the traffic more dense.

The research building—Michael says about background, “I found this abandoned building a few towns over from where I live. The whole place felt like the late 1950’s and the building looked like a research lab from that era. I had to sneak in the parking lot with my diecast models and quickly set up the scene, trying to get as many shots as possible. Because I was so rushed, this is the only good picture I was able to take, but I think it captured the feel of times past. I reduced the blue content to give the impression of a faded Kodachrome.”

The Spartanette House Trailer—Michael says, “I’ve been receiving a ton of requests about the Spartanette trailer model, so here is a peek inside. When building the interior, I had to construct it upside down, because for structural reasons the exterior had to be completed first. Does that make sense? Everything, down to the linoleum and birch plywood cabinets is period correct. Doing research on these details is always a very rewarding part of the project.”

A high angle was used on the '62 T-bird to show off it's great styling next to the trailer.

Three photos of the winter street scene were shown in the article above. Here is a fourth showing a different angle.
The Tip Top Toy Store—a difference of day and night. Note the penny-operated electric ride-on car in front of the store. Everybody is out and about in the morning including the garbage man. It looks busy, but the people can't quite be seen. The night shot with snow uses the same model to give a completely different feel. Two different angles also highlight different elements of the composition.
The Wash & Dry Laundromat and barber shop next door—day and night. In the second shot Michael removed the roof and suspended a 40-watt bulb over the building interior. Baking soda snow sifted and blown over the model turns the season into winter.
OK Used Cars—Out with the old and in with the new. The passage of time can be marked in Elgin Park by the date of the model cars used in the pictures.
This setup photo shows the tight space within which Michael must work for indoor shots in his apartment. You also get a look behind the scenes showing that the set, which, much like a movie set is designed to look perfect from the position of the camera lens only, implies the existence of much more detail than is actually modeled. The final shot gives the look of the dark sky of an impending tornado. The misty effect was achieved by burning damp newspapers in a bucket to get the smoke.
Sitting on a turntable in an ultra-modern showroom, the 1963 Chrysler Turbine, “Your Next Car,” offers the promise of a future technology, like personal jet-packs, and vacations on the moon, that never quite got here. Part of a fantasy set of images of the Turbine, the final photo is modified to look like a painting revealing “The Dream and the Reality.” This sort of sums up what Michael does with his photos of expertly built models; he creates a reality that never quite was.
Illustrations—In addition to his models and photos, Michael is also an extremely talented illustrator, as these colored pencil drawings demonstrate. Each took several months to complete as he learned to capture reflections in metal with almost photographic realism. They are, in order, a 1952 Hudson, a 1941 Oldsmobile, a 1950 Pontiac and a 1950 Studebaker.

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