His Own Small World
People my age read obituaries to keep up with the departures of friends and acquaintances. Recently I came across an obituary for someone who was neither friend nor acquaintance; indeed, not someone I had previously heard about at all, a fellow photographer named Michael Paul Smith. Smith was a miniaturist, noted for his painstaking recreations of life in small-town America, based on his memories of growing up in mid-century Sewickley, Pennsylvania. Like many boys of that era, he had built model cars. As an adult, he collected pricey die-cast 1/24-scale model cars and trucks purchased from the Danbury Mint. His photographs started out as a way to show off his collection on the Internet, and they soon went viral.
Always artistically inclined, Smith would build dioramas around his vehicles and then use a technique called forced perspective to blend them in with actual scenes of buildings, foliage and sky in the Massachusetts town where he lived as an adult. The results are so uncannily lifelike that Smith was sometimes accused of using Photoshop to create a fake reality. However, although he did sometimes use Photoshop color filters to mimic the look of old Kodachrome prints, the finished products were mainly the result of his own artistry and painstaking attention to detail.
Smith regarded his works not merely as photographs but as stories. For example, an image of an old car with its hood up and a toolbox open beside it is titled “The Day It Happened – Corliss Dink’s ’37 Studebaker.” Another image shows a cherry-red 1960 T-bird, its trunk and driver’s door flung open, being hauled out of a ditch by a pickup truck. Its title: “Teen Idol Slips into Town.” Perhaps most enigmatic of all, a picture of an old wooden caboose parked on a siding next to a couple of 30s-era coupes, with the title, “The Abandoned Caboose, a Pickle Recipe and Mrs. Menz.” According to the blub Smith appended to his photo, the widow Francine Menz, heir to the Horseradish estate, was putting up pickles in secrecy in the abandoned caboose. But whom was she making them for? We’ll never know, because “Francine fled the scene and was never heard from again.”
Almost all of Smith’s photographic compositions prominently feature cars and trucks, and almost all take place in “Elgin Park,” modeled after the steel town outside Pittsburgh where he grew up. He frankly acknowledged that he was presenting a somewhat idealized vision of the past. Smith noted in a documentary about his work that there were "hints" of darker themes from his childhood but nothing more. "Elgin Park does not need the bad,” he said.
Smith’s depictions of small-town life are so realistic that it may take a while to realize there are no people in any his pictures. Admittedly, it is easier to present true-to-life scale-model vehicles and buildings than scaled-down human beings. But Smith said the decision to leave out people was deliberate. “I want viewers to put themselves into the scenes,” he explained. “I’m creating a mood, something familiar in the viewer’s mind.” Without explicitly saying so, Smith had also created a world where he felt safe.
Growing up in a steel town was an alienating experience for a boy with artistic aspirations who knew by kindergarten that he was gay. He suffered the fate common to those who are perceived as different: he was bullied mercilessly in school. His teachers took pity on him and allowed him to leave school early each day so he wouldn’t be pummeled on the way home. As an adult, he struggled with depression and drug abuse, surviving multiple suicide attempts. He went from job to job without really landing on a career. Despite his extensive collection of vintage model cars, he didn’t actually drive a car of his own, nor did he own a cell phone or a TV set. He never really seemed at home in this world, so he created one of his own. And thanks to the Internet, his own small world has been shared with millions of people.
Elgin Park is a classic example of a paracosm, a richly imagined world that exists apart from this one. In literature, there are such fantasy realms as Alice’s Wonderland, Hogwart’s Castle and Narnia, as well as worlds very much like our own, such as William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. Psychologists also use the term paracosm to describe the elaborate fantasy worlds dreamed up by precocious children, often in response to the death in the family or other childhood trauma. The fantasizing may persist for years, even into adulthood. “I had some relatives that were missing a father,” Smith recalled. "And after eavesdropping, I found out why. People were murdered; people were mutilated. Those were pretty tough stories. Some of the stories for Elgin Park were inspired by those.”
Can Smith be regarded as a real artist or as just a hobbyist who never outgrew his fascination with model cars? His studio was his kitchen table, and his camera was pretty rudimentary. He occupied a niche far from the artistic mainstream. And yet his compositions were exquisitely lit, and, notwithstanding his crappy camera, he demonstrated technical mastery that would be the envy of any artist. Most importantly, he showed absolute fidelity to his artistic vision until the very end.
Smith died of pancreatic cancer and complications from diabetes. He was 67. The announcement on his Flickr page said simply, “We are sad to report that Michael Paul Smith moved permanently to Elgin Park (his words) this past Monday, November 19, 2018.”
Elgin Park, Directed by Danny Yourd, Animal Productions, 2015.