CC Interview: Michael Paul Smith

Michael Paul Smith City Creative Interview

First off, we apologize for this being March already and only our first interview of 2010. But, we think made up for it with this one. I was pretty excited to get the chance to get to know Michael Paul Smith a little better, as you will too after reading the interview.

Notice anything about the pictures above? Any similarities? Yes, they both have cars. Yes, they both depict classic mid-century scenes of America. It’s daytime…come on. Give up? Look a little closer…yes…they are not real scenes…well, they are…but in miniature. That’s right! Mr. Smith is a model builder / photographer. Each of the photos above, as well as below, are all hand built models. Everything but the cars (which are die cast collectibles) and the scenery in the extreme background is a hand built model.

When I stumbled across Mr. Smith’s work last month I was not only taken aback by the fact that these were not real street scenes, but  ecstatic when I found found out he is a Pittsburgh native. He currently resides in Massachusetts, but as stated on his Flickr profile, Pittsburgh is his “spiritual and geographical center”. His fictional model town of Elgin Park is based on his hometown of Sewickely, PA and looks like a page right out of Pittsburgh’s history book. Read on to find out more as well as see more of Mr. Smith’s amazing work.

CC:Nearly 20 million page views on Flickr since January and a New York Times article which came out just last week…What’s it like for a kid from Sewickley, reliving his childhood memories through photography, to go from relative web obscurity to a viral internet sensation seemingly overnight?

MPS: There certainly is a surreal feeling about all of this. But because it was through the web and it didn’t involve going out and meeting people, the situation feels a little more real to me. I know this sounds like a contradiction, but I’m a very shy person and the web gives me a form of bravery.

The fictional scale-model town of Elgin Park is based on your youth in Sewickley. Was the original thought to accurately recreate the actual businesses and buildings you remembered, or was it always intended to be a fictional ode to the past?

My original thought was to recreate Sewickley as close as possible. That was the Geek in me talking. The Artist in me realized everything would have more emotional impact if the structures had a universal appeal to them. I confess, I did take photos of every commercial building in town.

What I came away with was that Sewickley had a good example of every type of small town architecture from the last century. So it became my goal to just try to capture the flavor of the place. I think I succeeded.


Michael paul smith city creative interview

So, did I read it right in the NY Times article? The man with some 300 model cars has no actual car? What cars did you grow up with or around in Sewickley or loved as kid?

Yes, the ugly truth is I do not have a car. It’s a long story. Another odd truth is that when I did have vehicles, they were never a domestic make. But let me quickly add that I still love the look and styling of American cars. There’s a certain “big shoulder” confidence in American design that no one else can do. For about 12 years, I owned a 1951 Studebaker. It was not a daily driver, nor was it completely restored but it was a time machine. I’m not making this up, but the radio only got oldies stations. It would freak my friends out all the time. Our family car when I was growing up was a 1948 Plymouth. And the neighborhood was filled with independent makes so I have a special fondness for those cars now. In my photos I try to conjure up the feeling that not every car was a Ford or Chevy. I loved all of the independent makes back then. They were so unique looking. Even as a kid, I knew that.

I just happened to stumble across your work on a random blog a few months ago. I was completely taken aback after figuring out that the images were not real scenes, but in fact model sets. It obviously takes a high level of model building skill to pull this off. You have a pretty varied background of skills and talents. Is there any one job or training that best set you up, or on a path to model building?

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. Oddly enough, I’m just a good model maker and I’m not being self effacing here.

I learned that things visually “read” better when there is minimum amount of detail. Too much is distracting. Also keeping colors “in scale”. Just because something is red, it can be painted a different version of red. Or even imply that it’s red. The brain does some wonderful gymnastics to make the world coherent.

The shop itself, had one decent table saw, a mounted belt sander, a crummy drill press plus a really crappy band saw. Later we bought an 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.

I did have an American Flyer electric train when I was ten, although I only had enough track to make a figure 8 layout, so there wasn’t too much excitement going on. But the Planetarium Christmas train layout was what pushed me over the edge.  I liked the trains, but it was the buildings and the settings that laid the foundation for what I’m doing now. I try to visit Pittsburgh around the holidays so I can take in the train layout.It still makes me weak in the knees.

The sets and detailed components of your models are obviously painstakingly realistic. Do you mostly hand build everything, or is there a bit of model kit-bashing involved?

Hmmm… 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 and trips to the jewelry making store is also a creative challenge. If you look at the photo entitled “Diner Interior Exposed” you’ll see all of the items that are found objects. It’s just getting used to seeing things in a different scale.

This is just another assumption, but judging from your entire photostream on Flickr, you seem like a guy I would love to sit and have a beer with. There’s a lot of humor in some of your other work (I love the bears pushing the doll house down the stairs) and the Professor Vata series…Is that possibly an alter ego?

You made me laugh out loud with this question! Even though I don’t drink, I have a real drinkers sense of humor. I love odd experiences and all the inherent humor in those situations. I can have something really bad happen to me but once it’s over I find myself chuckling about it. Professor Vata is one of my alter egos. That guy always has an agenda, but a big heart. He’s a brave nerd, too.

Now about the bears moving the house… Way before Toy Story came out, [we’re talking 50 years ago] I knew my toys had a secret life. I’ve ended up with 5 complete stories about those bears, now. When I would take the stories to publishers, they would just look at me like I had two heads. But someday, those bears are going to make it to print!

Michael Paul Smith City Creative interview

You live in Massachusetts now, so what was it like to actually shoot a series of model shots back in Sewickley? It must have been a fulfilling feeling to shoot your models with the background being your actual hometown.

I remember the day it occurred to me that I could drive some of my models to Pittsburgh and do a week long photo shoot.  I couldn’t believe I never thought of it before. My first destination was the railroad tracks near the Sewickley bridge. I got there at 8 in the morning and set up the model base on the roof of the rented car, [ a Pontiac Grand Prix! ].  I needed the height to have the set line up with the train tracks. And then the Universe sent along a freight train as I was taking pictures. It was a perfect moment!

When doing these shoots, I need at least a few hundred feet between the model and the background to make the perspective work. There were so many scenes I couldn’t shoot because the distance was too short. I was hoping to get the house I grew up in as a background, but it had been torn down.  Now that was a disappointment. I would enjoy making the 13 hour ride again with my models, because I think my work has matured in the last year or two.

Now, I know you don’t doctor the photos in Photoshop (minus some color enhancements), but I’m sure you have a lot of people in stubborn disbelief that you don’t. I can only guess that as an artist you would take that as a complement. Would I be correct?

Correct! It’s a very high compliment to me. There have been some strong comments thrown at me by people who only use Photoshop. They can’t understand why I would want to waste my time with all the setup, let alone all the scouting around for the appropriate backdrop. I tell them, that’s the best part! That magic moment when it all comes together!  It’s very emotional.

michael paul smith city creative interview

I think the greatest draw for me (other than my infatuation with mid-20th Century culture) is that your images take me to another time and place, like any good photo does. One of my favorite photos is from the Dink’s Speed Shop postcard. It reminds me of looking at old photos of my Dad’s GTO, and it really transports the viewer back in time. Do you think the photos are a personal time-machine for yourself, or are you more interested in taking the viewer there instead?

Man, you ask very good questions! I have to say it’s a little bit of both.  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 cars. Even if there’s a single car in the shot, it doesn’t say: “Hey look at me!”  An example is the Mercury Turnpike Cruiser outside the White Castle in the rain. That car takes up most of the image, yet
the picture is about driving in the rain late at night. The hiss of the tires of passing cars on a wet street. The greasy light from the buildings interior that we all know so well when we grab a late night snack while on the road. All of the above are very personal to me, yet they are familiar to everyone else, but for other reasons. It’s a Win/Win situation.

Being a town that relishes in its history, I’m sure everyone from Pittsburgh will be hoping for you to do a scene from their section of the city. Any plans on doing any historically accurate Pittsburgh sets…or by chance you happen to do requests?

Now you’ve got me antsy to rent a car and take a road trip to the ‘Burgh. If I did do it, I would bring everything with me; all 300 vehicles and all 10 buildings.Plus my $75 sony 6 mp digital camera. My fantasy would be to take requests for certain neighborhoods or areas then see what happens. From there I’d get the group of people together and have a viewing. Hmmm, this has potential.We should talk about this!

Michael Paul Smith Sewickley city creative interview(notice the REAL Sewickley bridge in the background!!!)

You can see much, much, much more of Mr. Smith’s work on his Flickr photostream.

I can’t wait to see what he does next!


(all images copyright Michael Paul Smith)

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5 Responses to CC Interview: Michael Paul Smith

  1. Good artwork, and good interview, keep up the good work!

  2. Really nice interview!!! His photos are amazing.

  3. David Peterson says:

    It was great to see Michael Paul Smith’s wonderful work on ABC’s overnight news — and to find this excellent interview here.

    I knew Michael from years ago, I was so pleased to see he is still as creative as ever — perhaps moreso!

    David Peterson
    Cambridge MA

  4. Pingback: Justin Kownacki - 10 Ways to Create Media That Matters

  5. Alexander says:

    absolutly beautifull, but the headlamp glasses on the car models are the one’s that revealed to me that they were car models, also the road surface is too neat,
    all the best, Alexander from holland Amsterdam

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