Uses This

A collection of nerdy interviews asking people from all walks of life what they use to get the job done.

A picture of Michael Paul Smith

Michael Paul Smith

Photographer, model maker (Elgin Park)

Posted in artist, mac, photographer

Who are you, and what do you do?

My name is Michael Paul Smith, the creator of the fictitious town of Elgin Park. By using the oldest special effect in the book, lining up a model in front of a real background to create a realistic scene, I have constructed images of the mid 20th Century that exists only on the Internet and in a book.

Elgin Park is interactive, but not in the usual sense. The vignettes that are depicted span a 50 year period of American life starting in the 1920s and ending at the mid 1960s. The interaction happens when the viewer brings their own thoughts and memories to each photograph. Flickr became a springboard to give visitors from all over the world the chance to witness the mundane yet emotionally potent scenes of everyday life from another century.

I've had many jobs over the years that have led me to the development of this imaginary town. Everything from being a mailman, wallpaper hanger, art director, textbook illustrator, newspaper editorial artist, display designer, archivist, interior painter, architectural model maker and bartender, just to name a few.

What hardware do you use?

These scenes were created with 1/24th scale diecast models that I have amassed over the last 20 years. There are over 300 cars and trucks in my collection.

The handmade buildings and structures are constructed with Gator Board, basswood, and styrene plastic.

As for tools, almost everything is crafted using basic items such as X-acto blades, sanding blocks, metal rulers, paper, super glue and household paint in cans and aerosol.

For the effects of snow, I use baking soda sifted over the model, then misted with water so the baking soda "melts". The dirt in the gutters and streets is achieved by using finely sifting vacuum cleaner dirt where it is needed on the model. A critical aspect of miniature sets is to have everything in scale and that includes the "dirt and snow".

When photographing my models out in the field, I use a luggage cart to move things about because I do not own a car. So everything I need for the shoot, which includes a folding table, a box of supplies containing tape, dirt, water and glue, plus a 3' x 4' model base, and a box of diecast vehicles and a box of buildings, gets strapped onto the cart.

For capturing the scenes of Elgin Park, I use a Canon SX280 digital camera. Although it is almost too good for what I'm trying to accomplish, which is creating the look and feel of photographs from another time period. Today's digital cameras record too much information. If you study older photographs, you will notice they tend to have a blur and a slight lack of definition.

Because I am not a professional photographer, I literally place the camera on Automatic and let it do all of the work. This gives me time to do the composing and artistic stuff through the viewing screen.

My beloved computer is now almost 4 years old. Being at the right place and at the right time enabled me to get an end of season model for a ridiculously low price. I'm not computer savvy at all so I've come to appreciate the ease of using a Mac.

And what software?

I do some "post production" work on my photographs. Mostly to remove a stray unwanted sign or person in the background because I can't control outdoor shots. Also to add a tint or slightly desaturate the color of the final image. From the very beginning, I gave myself the challenge to compose the scene in the viewfinder and never use digital manipulation to change the image. This includes adding an object into the photograph.

Photoshop 9.0 is the tool I use for this. It was given to me as a gift and I've only learned the basics functions, so I will never be tempted to unleash its power. I think of myself as a semi-Luddite.

Just recently, a follower of my work sent me a link to a product that mimics the look of film from the past - DxO FilmPack. It's pretty amazing what this software can do.

In doing research for my scenes, I straddle the line between software and hardware because I use both the Internet and books to study the way things looked, back in the day. From the internet, Shorpy is a huge resource for detailed photographs. Also, the archives of Charles Cushman and The H.A.M.B.S website.

You can't beat the "snapshot" photo for showcasing the past. Because the photographers were not taking glamor shots, all of the minutia of everyday life was captured on film.

What would be your dream setup?

Having a real workshop with the basic tools like a table saw, a drill press, a bandsaw, a mounted sander plus a spray booth would be just about heaven for me. Not to mention space to move around in, which would include a few workbenches and a central table that was moveable. Oh, yes, and lots of storage space, too. And if I can keep this fantasy going, having a room for photography would be just dandy. I do indoor night scenes and they are all done on my kitchen table which is also my work bench. My spray booth is my open window.

And one more thing... having heat in the winter and AC in the summer would be the cherry on the cake. I live on the 3rd floor of an old house and these amenities are sorely lacking.