Book Review - Elgin Park: Visual Memories of Midcentury America at 1/24th Scale

Jamie Lincoln Kitman

Jamie Lincoln Kitman | Sep 09, 2015

Elgin Park: Visual Memories of Midcentury America at 1/24th Scale by Michael Paul Smith and Gail K. Ellison

As a child, it ought not surprise you to learn, I had a thing about cars. While no one could have known that when fully grown I’d arrange to own dozens of the real things at once, I did have a rather serious toy car habit from an early age (three) and pretty much until I began spending money on real cars, at 14. Names like Dinky and Corgi will be familiar to anyone of a certain vintage; I trafficked heavily in their custom in the 1960s and early 70s, while also searching out more obscure offerings from the likes of Tri-ang, Spot-on, Solido, Norev and others. My early obsession, in retrospect, might have provided a clue as to my future direction.

(Michael Paul Smith)

Aside from reflecting my generally Anglo- and Euro-centric taste in automobiles, the unifying theme for my boyhood collecting was scale. My preferred imaginary car world was 1/43 scale. Nothing drove me crazier than kids who played cars with no reference to scale and therefore in my mind reality. A Matchbox London bus was, for instance, annoyingly, too small to even reflect the brand’s standard 1/64th scale. Understandably, placing it on the same make-pretend street as a 1/43rd Corgi Mini that was bigger than its double-decker self made me hopping mad. In fact, it ruined everything. A Bedford garbage truck shorter than a Dodge Royal Lancer police car model from the same maker? Absurd. In the tightly wound fantasy world of a child playing with toy cars, realism counted for all and these were unacceptable deviations.

Victims of mismatched scale: This hapless Mini Cooper is too big to parallel park between the Classic Rambler and the giant stapler.

Of course as my age crept up and my childlike imagination receded, the most unacceptable thing about my own toy car world became the complete lack of realistic backgrounds in which to set these toys. I sincerely believed that with proper time and financial backing I could build elaborate 1/43rd scale cities, with individual bricks and cobblestones molded by me, and along whose roads my toys would proudly roll. Sad for me, and happily for the state of my parents’ basement and my education, none of it was forthcoming. The urge to play with toy cars passed, but the fundamentals of my interest remained.

(Michael Paul Smith)

Fortunately for this student of automotive scale, then, there is now the fascinating work of Michael Paul Smith, a 60-something Pittsburgher who’s kind of taken my childhood dream and made it a reality, building a name for himself on-line –83 million Flickr page views, hello -- taking hyper-realistic photographs (no photoshop here) of model cars – 1/24th scale -- in a half-real, half-fake dream world. Except Smith’s images are shot using a mind-bending assortment of real buildings and flora as backgrounds, as well as expertly rendered models and props. After initially fooling you into thinking you are looking at an old photograph, you learn the truth, they are kind of open-air dioramas. Then, they further deceive you into thinking you’ve found perfect scale. Actually, you are looking at a small model expertly placed with hand-made props in front of a genuine house, one real people live in, giving the illusion of correct scale and hyper reality. It’s an effective con and endlessly amusing.

(Michael Paul Smith)

Quality diecast models from Smith’s collection help, but the intense realism of his staged scenes are attributable most to advanced model making skill, superior photographic technique and an historian’s ability to heighten the sense that you are walking into the past, rather than witnessing something that a guy shot around his neighborhood with some toy cars.

Driven, he says, by his love for the 20th century, Smith’s creations purport to tell you about a place called Elgin Park; in this book his friend Gail Ellison’s accompanying words set the context.

(Michael Paul Smith)

Even if a walk down an imaginary Memory Lane isn’t what you’re after and even if you think old-time street scenes -- the cars, signs and architecture accurate to a fare-thee-well, with fastidious hand-made details like shoe boxes and gravel as lifelike as the real stuff made by the artist – won’t tickle your fancy, you might still enjoy Elgin Park. It demonstrates, as I always believed, it’s the scale that counts. And when, as here, the trick works, it’s works over and over again.

Elgin Park from Animal on Vimeo.

Elgin Park: Visual Memories of Midcentury America at 1/24th Scale
By Michael Paul Smith
Pages: 328
ISBN: 978-0-9861489-0-3
Retail Price: $50.00
Publication Date: June 21, 2015

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