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A line of legendary cars
in Memory Lane.

American photo stories of the fifties by Michael Paul Smith.

Hans Arend de Wit

Looking back down my memory lane I see that we kids fantasized we were star bike racers in the Tour de France, and we dreamed of the car we would later drive. After the war there stood a pre-war black Terraplane in the street and a maroon colored Oldsmobile, and later a black prosperous looking Ford Fairlane, and once a white fairytale Mercury visiting from Venezuela. None of the boys in the street owned Dinky Toys, they were too expensive. But I had one, a green Austin A40, 1/43. The Austin steered smoothly like in a movie.
Later, as a diversion from my busy work as art director in advertising, I built plastic scale models of a larger scale, 1/24. In the silence of the night from time to time it happened that a miniature thud woke me up, a bumper that had fallen, or a headlamp, which had come loose after the glue had dried, lost its adhesive power, and could not hold the automobile together. This was a turning point from where I focused on diecast metal cars, and I never stopped dreaming.
A Canadian friend, who knows of my interest in legendary cars and photographing them, mailed me the website address of "Man On The Move" with an article on Michael Paul Smith. Michael appeared to have gone deeper into the field of scale models than I could imagine. Michael builds complete sets as if for movies. He creates scenes, which really are lifelike cityscapes, of which he makes uniquely realistic and wonderfully fine photographs as if for a documentary feature.

How did you roll into these dioramas?
"Back in 1984, when I was 34," Michael told me, "I stopped working as an art director in advertising, and started making models for architectural proposals. I was enormously helped by my experience with building plastic car kits and backgrounds for the environment. But it was a bad time for the building industry so I switched to making designs for museum displays. This appeared to be an interesting job, doing research in styles and artifacts, and again started making models. All the while I collected line-ups of Danbury and Franklin Mint models, parked on long shelves a rather static display. I started thinking I could do better with my experience as a model maker, and I planned to park the cars in front of buildings of the same period, all in the scale of 1/24. I now have quite a long line up of diecast models, which took me almost 20 years to collect. I wanted to put these models into an environment to help bring some life to them, instead of just letting them sit on a shelf."

I've been thinking about mud lately.

"Then I got the idea to create stage sets for photographs of cars in a particular period. I did some research, looked at old photographs for architectural styles and details, and signs that define an era that are now missing. From all this information I started to think of what image I wanted to present, a night shot, a snow scene, or rainy day? As I got more comfortable with the whole process, throwing dust, water and baking soda on everything was less difficult for me to do. I've been thinking about mud lately."

For a city stage quite some room is needed.
"Some room is needed indeed, often too much for inside the house. I set up the scene on a table and look at it from all angles. The next step is to go out looking for the right background. This is not an easy task with all the malls and housing developments around. The perfect place is finding a field or parking lot with about a block's worth of unobstructed view. This allows the background to be in scale with the model. I once found a discarded 1/24th scale building and decided to fix it up and add an interior. What was most important was that 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 took some photographs. That was a great moment for me. It then became just a matter of time before I started to design and make my own structures. In the end I ended up with 15 buildings, a small city."

No multi mega pixels for me.
"The camera I use is a 6MP Sony. Anything above that takes in too much information. I had a 3MP camera that took better "vintage" photos because the lens wasn't that good. Old film camera lenses cause a mild blur to the images, and it's that blur that holds the key to the look of the past. The blur adds emotional distance and mystery so you can fill in the details with your own memories. And that's why I don't have the urge to show people in my photos, for I want the viewers to put themselves into the pictures and not be distracted by other people.
Something I learned very early in model making was that if one can't make something properly, and then don't make it at all. You can always 'visually suggest' something without actually putting in all the details. The brain will fill in a lot of detail for you. If you look closely at my photos, you can see that the doors don't have hinges, there are no drain spouts and metal beams do not have rivets, yet the photos appear to be dense with detail. There have been times when I needed a building in the background to fill a spot, so I'd just tape a plastic sheet of brick onto the side of a box. It had minimum detail and it did the trick."

The town that never was.
As a boy reading and looking at photos in The Saturday Evening Post, Look and Life, I often dreamed of living in an American town like Elgin Park, I told Michael Paul. "But you won't find Elgin Park, it's an imaginary steel mill town in Pennsylvania, where the last page of the calendar shows a month in 1964," he said.  There's an incredible lot of web traffic in Elgin Park. Since links to his Flickr page spread virally this year, some 20 million views have been recorded. Smith receives an astonishing 1200 emails per day.

What made you focus in such a singular way on model cars?
To me those scale models are no toys for boys. They became icons for me of the period when Idiscovered the world and the way ahead into my future. They embody optimism for me, the roads I were to travel, the people I used to know, remembrances of youthful dreams of my future. Yes, this is what my models of houses and photographs are all about.

What if someone wants to hang one of your photos in his environment?
A wide choice of photographs may be found on Michael's flickr site: http://www.flickr.com/photos/24796741@N05/sets/
Via his website he offers prints for sale to older boys like he is: http://elginpark.smugmug.com/Street-Scenes/Elgin-Park/11485172_CSGgR#809002693_VNe7n

Dutch / Nederlands
























No tricks. Michael Paul says that he doesn't show people in his photos, and that he doesn't use Photoshop tricks, but this seems to be a wonderful exception, the car is a model and the young woman is as real as we'd want her to look, no tricks!





Some more.