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Remembering Michael Paul Smith Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

14 December 2018

Like most of us in the era of digital photography, Michael Paul Smith had no idea what he was doing at first. But unlike most of us, his photography took him to another place where he could eventually spend eternity.

The model maker and photographer passed away Nov. 19 from pancreatic cancer and complications from diabetes at the age of 67.

We featured him in our Saturday Matinee series in 2015 when he was using a Canon PowerShot SX700 HS and SX280 HS to photograph his meticulous "forced perspective" scenes of models and real scenes to create Elgin Park, the imaginary town he built.

"What's most interesting is when I started to take the photos of my models," he once confessed, "I had no idea what I was doing. I just aimed and shot with the little digital Sony. Who knew you had [to] set the DPI or whatever it's called, to the highest setting?"

Resolution, Mr. Smith, that's what it's called. And he had it in spades, devoting a decade to building his ideal town.

As we pointed out in our matinee:

He built everything in the scene except those backgrounds and the die cast model cars. The buildings are constructed of resin-coated paper, styrene plastic and basswood, plus lots of little found objects. The vehicles are from Smith's collection of over 300 commercially produced, diecast models, each of which cost him at least $100. Details which are sometimes barely visible in the final photograph, include meticulously crafted shoeboxes, interior furnishings and even a stretcher for an ambulance.

"I knew from kindergarten that I was gay," he said in a recent documentary, enduring years of bullying in Sewickley, Pa., where he grew up. He suffered depression and self-medicated with drugs, surviving multiple suicide attempts.

His father gave him a model car kit for his 12th birthday, which led to his pursuit of the Fisher Body Craftsman's Guild contest for several years. He never won but he came to appreciate automotive design.

His family moved to Worcester, Mass., when he was 17. There he earned a certificate from the Worcester Art Museum which led to design jobs illustrating textbooks and setting up store and museum displays.

He worked at a number of other jobs, too, including cabinet maker, bartender, mailman, wallpaper hanger, painter and photographer. "Everything you do, you will learn from it and you will use it later on in life," he said.

Those jobs, in fact, informed the scenarios he created for Elgin Park. His postal career, for example, helped him lay out Elgin Park's streets in a credible pattern that welcomed 74 million visitors by 2010.

He had decided in 2008 to make something of his collection of 1/24 scale model cars he had accumulated over 20 years. That was to place them in realistic settings, meticulously lighted and detailed, that could not be distinguished from the real thing.

He himself never drove and, being reclusive, wore his Flickr fame uncomfortably. But he could always return to Elgin Park, a place where "he and others could be comfortable and creative," as one obituary put it.

The last image of Elgin Park posted on his Flickr page announced simply, "I've moved to Elgin Park!" A message under the image said, "Heart felt thanks to everyone for giving the town gravity and an atmosphere. If you would like to stop by for a visit, please call first to make sure I'm home."

Where else would he be?

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