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USA 22.07.2021Features

Miss Elaine's Beauty Salon

Happy Days Are Here Again - A Tribute to Michael Paul Smith

A personal project propelled to universal acclaim by the power of the internet, Elgin Park becomes a reality for over 20 million fans.

A tribute to Michael Paul Smith  1950-2018

Text: Mike von Joel | Images: Michael Paul Smith

IN THE LAST decade there has been a discernible disquiet amongst critics and collectors about the lack of skill and dexterity demonstrated by those creating contemporary art. The once wide gulf between that defined as ‘fine art’ and what is regarded as ‘craft’ has narrowed considerably. Witness Charles Saatchi picking up Ron Mueck, a highly talented model maker and puppeteer in the film industry, and repackaging him as an ‘artist’ in the Duane Hanson/John de Andrea mould.

In photography, the chaotic number of images being created thanks to the inexpensive digital process has demanded a ‘time out’. Those seriously concerned with photography are now evaluating images with a rigour usually reserved for painting. Although the ability to capture Cartier-Bresson’s ‘decisive moment’ still earns respect, photographs that are otherwise devised are required to be much more than clever Photoshop acrobatics.Photographers have always been quick to adapt and manipulate technical innovations. The tilt/shift lens (giving the ability to distort an image by altering the depth of field and plane of focus) or more correctly ‘selective focus’, has been one. This effect can give the impression of miniaturisation, with one part of the image in sharp focus and the rest blurred. It was a technique used successfully by artist Olivo Barbieri in the 1990s, with his hypnotic views of cityscapes and crowd scenes. 

In 2010, a gallery on the photographers’ website Flickr suddenly began getting an incredible number of hits –20 million within months. It was an upload called Elgin Park, a series of photographs showing a 1950’s era American small town, familiar to anyone who loved Happy Days and American Graffiti. Although devoid of actual people, its American audience responded with enthusiastic nostalgia to the sleepy street scenes of diners, parking lots and store fronts – including period automobiles and trucks. All the more interesting because Elgin Park is a complete fabrication by a former model maker, illustrator, painter, museum display designer, advertising art director, amateur historian and photographer. Michael Paul Smith invented Elgin Park in cyberspace, a tribute to his own home town of Sewickley, Pennsylvania, and centred on his collection of high quality, 1:24-scale diecast model cars purchased from the Danbury Mint. Closer investigation by the Flickr audience revealed that these images were not the result of Photoshop cleverness, but quite the reverse. Shot with a deliberately low tech 6-megapixel Sony CyberShot camera and processed on an ancient Apple Mac, Smith has created a magical townscape firmly frozen in the early 1960s. 

What sets Michael Paul Smith apart from other artists working in similar vein is his extraordinary talent as a modeler and his unbelievable attention to minute detail. The scale of his builds are dictated by the undisputed stars of each scenario – the model vintage cars (where one ¼ inch equals one foot). Using memory and archival photographs, Smith creates street scenes (complete with to-scale gravel) and then photographs the ensemble outdoors using real backdrops –carefully positioned to retain a pin point accuracy of scale. The results are uncanny. Elgin Park appears sunlit, in snowy winter, on a rainy night, on an overcast afternoon. Nostalgic sepia juxtaposes with garish Kodachrome colour and with slightly out of focus ‘snapshots’.‘I have about 15 buildings constructed. I say “about" because they are built in such a manner that I can use pieces of some and attach it to another to create a different look. Right now, I'm constructing a completely new building and that in itself is about four months of effort. There are times when a particular car will be the main source of inspiration. All of my indoor shots are night scenes. I use a 40 or 60-watt bulb for the main light source and then there are the 5-watt Christmas tree lights inside the buildings. Occasionally I'll use LED lights to give a contrasting colour to the regular bulbs.’

And now, much to his surprise, the avuncular Michael Paul Smith has suddenly found himself a ‘fine artist’ with exhibitions of his work requested:‘I went through a number of emotions, over a period of time, trying to figure out just how it felt. Startled, amazed and unsettled are still fairly accurate, too. At some point, I turned an "artistic" corner without even knowing it. The screen saver on my computer is a slide show of my photos and there are times when I am caught unawares by a particular image. It's at that moment, without any preconceived notions, that I see what people are now talking about. And I have been sidetracked by projects such as the Prestel book and the invitation to exhibit at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City.’

Smith’s new found celebrity has also introduced him to the usual downside of interfacing with ‘the public’. A number of his email correspondents have demanded to know the ‘secrets’ of his camerawork, unable to believe he has not developed some hidden Photoshop skills he won’t share. Others with envy at his perceived success, despite being an ‘amateur’. An English woman wanted directions for an actual visit to Elgin Park, Smith thinks she was devastated to learn it doesn’t exist:‘My work has touched people's lives and they tell me about it. And their letters, in turn, touch my life. That interaction is vital in life. The key to correspondence like this is to respond as soon as the letter is read. The emotions are fresh and the connection is strong.’

Elgin Park has touched Smith’s life alright and the genie is truly out of the bottle. A man of modest aspirations and means, approaches by galleries to exhibit and sell his work has, he confesses, created a ‘dilemma’. Demands on his time to lecture about the imagery itself is a also new distraction to be dealt with. The original concept has expanded exponentially, the book of Elgin Park even has a detailed map showing the location of the various views shown. It’s not hard to imagine that on some days Smith wishes he could just literally slip away into his own creation and recapture the halcyon times of his youth. In one respect he can. The Sewickley Gallery and Frame Shop has asked if he would show his work there:
‘This event, even though it's small and personal, has had a huge emotional punch for me. Sewickley is my home town. It's is only one square mile in area, yet this is the place that has inspired everything I have done. A circle, that has been 60 years in the making, will be completed.'

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