Most modelers go about their work in private, fussy about the minutiae of their work but hardly cognizant of where the work fits into broader questions of purpose and meaning. Michael Paul Smith, who died earlier this month shortly before his 68th birthday, knew exactly why he had to create the 1/24-scale town of Elgin Park and why it resonated with so many people around the world.
“It’s not just my little fantasy,” he said in a documentary on Elgin Park in support of a book release a few years ago. “I’m also documenting the 20th century in a way.”
But not the war-and-politics view on the 20th century that most history books take. Instead, it’s a slower-paced view, one that replaces the ills of the modern world with mid-century aesthetics, from the architecture to the flights of fantasy to the cars that started the whole venture. And it’s a view that acted as a form of therapy for Smith.
“I knew from kindergarten that I was gay,” he admitted in the documentary. “I’ve come into this reality from a slightly different angle.” He endured years of bullying growing up in Sewickley, Pennsylvania, where he faced few prospects other than working in the local steel mills after high school. He said in later years he battled depression and drug use, and survived multiple suicide attempts.
But he also found solace in the combination of art and automobiles from an early age. As he recounted in a 2010 New York Times profile on his work, his father gave him his first model car kit for his 12th birthday. After he completed that, he decided to enter the Fisher Body Craftsman’s Guild contest for a number of years. Though he never won the contest, he came to appreciate automotive design and would later put those skills to use in modelmaking.
His career path to modelmaking, however, took a circuitous route. His family moved to Worcester, Massachusetts, when he was 17, and, after high school, he took a certificate program at the Worcester Art Museum, which led to gigs illustrating textbooks and designing fashion store and museum displays. Over the next few decades, he worked as a cabinet maker, bartender, mailman, wallpaper hanger, painter, and photographer before landing jobs as an advertising art director and modelbuilder for an architectural engineering firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Then, in about 2008, he decided to do something with the 300 or so 1/24-scale models he’d accumulated over the previous 20 years, most of them from Danbury Mint, according to The New York Times. “Recreating his boyhood memories seemed a good place to start,” Jim Koscs wrote for the article.
So Smith decided to start photographing the cars against appropriately scaled building facades that he built from scratch. What set his photographs apart, however, was the careful attention to detail Smith paid to lighting and perspective as he placed his dioramas outside, among the telephone poles, power lines, and vegetation surrounding his home in Winchester, Massachusetts. The photographs — especially when Smith applied sepia-toned or Kodachrome filters to them — appeared all too realistic, thanks to Smith’s talents. Smith never meant to deceive with the photographs, however: He often posted numerous behind-the-scenes pictures of his photo locations and setups.
(Ironically, for somebody whose photos never failed to include his model cars, Smith didn’t drive and instead shuttled his dioramas around town using a handcart.)
Though the scenes he photographed in some way reflected Sewickley, they also started to suggest a more idealized place — one that was more welcoming and more accessible than his boyhood home. Smith named it Elgin Park, and the photographs he posted to Flickr soon became viral fodder, racking up millions of views at a time and making a sensation out of Smith.
“I’m a recluse, so recognition is tough for me,” Smith said in the documentary. But he also recognized that Elgin Park could help him fulfill his purpose of making a difference in the world by creating a place in which he and others could be comfortable and creative.
“I created Elgin Park so anyone can be there,” he said. “Elgin Park doesn’t need the bad. It’s never a lonely place for me; it’s always challenging and inspiring me. And I’ve come to find out that the thing that I like to do the most, when I put it out there, has changed so many people.”
While he was able to capitalize on Elgin Park’s popularity with a pair of books, Elgin Park: An Ideal American Town and Elgin Park: Visual Memories of Midcentury America at 1/24th scale, Smith said he also formed many connections with fans and with other artists fond of his work, particularly those who want to do some good with their artistic talents, and said the concept of Elgin Park will certainly outlive him.
“Elgin Park now has an atmosphere and gravity, and if it ends for me, I think it will continue because it has made an impact,” Smith said in the documentary. “If I passed away tomorrow, that’s perfectly alright because I feel like I have done something.”
Smith died November 19, according to the announcement on his Flickr page.
(Thanks to Gene Herman for letting us know.)