Pictured: Professional model maker and classic American car buff Michael Paul Smith posed in front of his miniaturized winter wonderland.
No easy feat, Michael Paul Smith is in the business of recreating the past. But what makes his utterly nostalgic artwork so unique is the fact that it is fashioned in 1/24th scale. Take a look at the photos he has taken of these hand crafted, custom-designed scenes from yesteryear and you will likely have trouble telling them apart from the real thing. Don’t worry, we did too. He is that good.
Source: Michael Paul Smith Flikr page (photos used with permission)
HOW DID YOU GET INTO MODEL MAKING?
I got into professional model making back in 1984 when I quit my job as an Art Director, due to a heart attack [Advertising is a very stressful occupation]. I just happened to see an article in the paper about architectural model making and started to call these places, looking for a job. I had zero experience except as a kid I would build plastic car kits and construct homemade buildings to give the models some context. Only one person took a chance on me. He said I could work for one week and he would review what I had done. At the end of the week, he said I could stay. I was 34 at the time. Over the years, the economy changed and so did the job market. As architectural model makers, you have the advantage to peer about 3 years into the future because you’re building projected projects. Few buildings were being designed and more renovations were starting to show up. The writing was on the wall, so we all started to look for other jobs. I became an illustrator for a publishing firm which lead to a job helping to design museum displays. That was a great job. All the research and artifacts and site visits; you had to immerse yourself into each project to get the flavor and feel of what was being presented. This exposed me to amazing resources. Again, the economy took a turn and new jobs had to be found. I took up wallpapering and interior painting which exposed me to renovation of older homes and commercial buildings. Finally, a well known Architectural firm in the Boston area had an opening for a modelers assistant. During all of this time, I was collecting Danbury and Franklin Mint diecast models [they are my only vice in this life]. With over 300 of them, just sitting on my shelves, I thought they would look better surrounded by buildings, which would give them some context. All of the experience from my past jobs started to come into play. Plus I had the use of the model shop from the firm I was working with. My evenings and weekends became filled 1/24th scale projects.
This 1939 Ford Deluxe Coupe 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”. I went to the Charles Cushman website to view his color photographic work from the ’30’s and ’40’s. I was interested in the “natural color” of his transparencies. Interestingly enough, there was a wide range of tints and saturation. After experimenting I settled on this particular tone, then added the black transparency frame to continue the illusion.
WHEN DID IT TURN INTO AN ART FORM INVOLVING ELABORATE SCENES AND PHOTOGRAPHY?
Photographing them as a way to document what I had done quickly turned into an Art project. I started to create scenes and quick, one frame stories. It was just a matter of time before I started taking them outside for more realistic photos. You can see my learning curve when you view my photos. The earlier ones are somewhat staged and pristine. Then there were the dramatic night shots with water and fog. As of this writing, the look is the “everyday, slightly gritty” snapshot.
YOUR FAUX ENVIRONMENTS ARE SO CONVINCING. HOW DO YOU DO IT?
One of the things I learned early on when constructing and photographing the models was to keep things simple. To have a main focus in the picture so it reads as a one frame story. Using existing resources and not spend money for special effects is critical for me. A 60 watt bulb does a great job. A box of baking soda is perfect for snow. My rule of thumb is: What I need is usually in the room I’m in. A huge surprise is that the better the digital camera, the worse the photos are. Big pixel cameras take in way too much information. If you study old photographs, you will notice a lot of details are blurry. Our brain tends to fill in the missing data, which helps to create a more personalized view of what you’re looking at. You might have noticed that there are never any people in the pictures. That is deliberate. It gives the photos a more dreamlike quality where you can project your own memories into them.
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.
This is one of those photos I kept studying and rethinking. The original Dink’s Speed Shop postcard looked correct, but didn’t feel settled to me. The short version of a long story is that I finally decided the custom fender skirt on the Ford was distracting. [Forgive me Danbury Mint for removing it and adding a chrome spear]. I re-shot the photo and although it pretty much looks like the original, the subtle difference now feels right. Perhaps this is the curse of having been a museum display designer and an art director. To slightly alter a famous quote: “The MADNESS is in the details”.
WHAT KIND OF FEEDBACK HAVE YOU GOTTEN SO FAR?
It’s only been in the last 2 year that I’ve posted my images on flickr. Before that, no one saw work.This may sound odd, but I really didn’t think anyone would be interested in my hobby. Due to Flickr, a few magazines have given me interviews. A wonderful gentleman from the UK wrote a piece that created a flurry of interest in England. I can’t thank him enough for that. I have been trying to get a gallery show here in the Boston area…..
YOU ARE DEFINITELY A CAR GUY. WHAT’S IN YOUR DRIVEWAY?
As for the car I drive… actually I don’t have one. I did have a 1951 Studebaker for about 12 years. It was grand! I do follow the car shows and what’s new to the public. If anything gets me excited, its anything from the late 30’s to the early 60’s. Cars, such as Nash, Rambler, Kaiser and the like were very popular during their time. Many people today never experienced the diversity that existed back then. Granted, there are newer cars that make me stop and take a second look. But I miss the personalities of older cars. A few cars I would love to drive…A ’54 or ’56 Ford. A ’53 Nash or Hudson. A ’55 Kaiser Manhattan. A ’61 Plymouth Fury. A ’61 Desoto and of course a ’51 Studebaker. In the here and now, I would enjoy an Acura.
This is a piece I did for an exhibition on ROBOT ART. Who knew that Robby from Forbidden Planet and the Robot from Lost In Space got married and had a kid? The vehicle is a 1/18th scale Chrysler Turbine that I repainted.
A lot of baking soda was shaken over the set, then lit with one 60 watt bulb, that was just out of the frame. The glare from the bulb gave the appearance of falling snow being diffused by a street light.
There are a few things about making models and photographing them that are peak experiences. First is doing research and coming up with an era that would be interesting. From there it’s creating a look that suggests time has passed through the buildings and scene. There are rarely completely new buildings all lined up in a row. If you look around, you will notice buildings have been added on to, streets have be repaved, vehicles are not all brand new. It’s those kind of details that add subtle layers to any given scene. It’s at that level where the magic comes into play.
While surfing the web for inspiration, I came across a site, from the Library of Congress, that featured COLOR photographs from the US government, depicting everyday scenes from the 1930’s through the 1940’s. Each scene, at first glance, seemed devoid of any narrative, but after viewing all of the images, a complete story emerged. Here was a visual description of a bygone era. And here is my reconstruction of that type of photography, with a vintage Kodak transparency frame to complete the illusion.