In yesterday’s segment, we conversed at length relating to Mr. Smith’s background and introduction to the scale modeling hobby itself. (Missed it? Then be wise my fellow hoonigan, and read up first). Today we’ll get into some of the nitty-gritty, miniature-grease-in-the-fingernails stuff, so pour a drink, put the ambulance service on standby, and prepare for more of Master Smith…
GIC: What strikes me the most about your photos is how they’re simultaneously both about and yet not about the cars. There’s an old axiom in model railroad photography that states, “A train should merely be part of the scenery”; this sounds simple enough but in practice it can be maddening. Yet that’s exactly what you’ve done here: the cars draw your attention but at the same time, they’re just so much anonymous filler in a larger scene. Even your photos of a stocked OK Dealership seem to make the cars “disappear” as subject matter. It’s amazing, and yet you’re working in an incredibly condensed space without expansive, built-up scenery. Do I have the right general view of your approach here, or are there other tricks you’ve plied (and care to share)?
MPS: I’ve found that when a car becomes the focal point, the rest of the “story” in the photo just stops. So it’s important for me that everything works as a unit. The vehicles become visual cues, or lead-ins. They immediately set the “time reference”, even if you don’t know car design or styles. They also can let you know the type of neighborhood or scene that’s being represented. I could throw a curve to the “story” by having older vehicles lined up but then place a newer or more expensive vehicle in the same shot. You find yourself asking: Why would this new car be here? Who owns this? What’s being set up? The background and the cars are now interacting and creating a cohesive picture.
GIC: As for subject matter: Do you aim for generic scenes of everyday life in the Norman Rockwell sense, or is there a deeper, personal meaning in them?
MPS: There is a bit of Norman Rockwell in my earlier photos because his work mirrored what I had experienced when I was young: a safe and loving childhood. My later pictures are a bit more realistic, yet they are not fearful or emotionally gritty.
GIC: Obviously your childhood home dioramas have an obvious personal connection, but what about the various storefronts and neighborhoods you’ve created? Do your nighttime snow scenes revive a particular memory in your mind?
MPS: It don’t remember it snowing that often in Pittsburgh when I was a child, but when it did it felt like magic. There was a dim street light outside my bedroom window that had a green enameled shade and it would create a cone of light where the snow would whirl around. Back in the day, there were not that many cars in town, so the streets felt deserted and still. And with the snow falling, the feeling was even more pronounced. This was not a bad thing for me. Standing by the window, looking out, I could see the neighbor’s windows throwing rectangles of light across the snow covered lawns and sidewalks. That’s the essence of my snow photos.
GIC: Are the storefronts inspired, owned and managed by people you once knew? Or are they effective yet anonymous bit players for your master craft?
MPS: Absolutely [inspired by real people] yes! The Gibson florist building is almost verbatim except for the name. Hegner’s Hardware is a bit more ornate than the original but it captures the essence of my memory. The barber shop interior is fairly accurate; right before they tore the building down, I made sketches of the furnishings and the details of that room. It seemed important to recreate it. Vivian’s Bakery is a composite of all the bakeries I have known as a child. And the Elgin movie theater is a highly glamorized version of the Sewickley Theater.
GIC: Have you ever begun what you figured would be a routine project, only to find yourself sidetracked and involved with tangential research, skill-building, and materials sourcing that you hadn’t planned for?
MPS: The Superette corner store was such a project. I was thinking about a clapboard exterior with one generic, large window in front. I studied a number of reference photos to get the look right, but happened to come across a store that had been clad in Vitrolite back in the 30’s. Vitrolite was a beautiful, thick, colored glass that came in colors like maroon, cream, pale celery green, deep blue, and dark brown. It came in two-foot squares, was held in place with industrial adhesive, and needed zero care – you can still see some of this around in older parts of town. So to get back to the question, I had to find a material that was the proper scale, in the right colors and how to represent it accurately in the model. And for the interior the same situation came up: if the exterior had been “moderized” then perhaps the inside had been updated too – so what were the materials they would have used? As the list grew it included refrigerated display cases, flooring, and paint colors – just to mention a few. As geeky as all of this sounds, I had a blast researching this.
So much of the past has been lost, but I’m doing my part by resurrecting it in miniature.
GIC: Ever have a project gather dust half-finished for an indefinite time, until the proper motivation (or missing part, or reference material, or liquid courage, etc) was found? This happens to me quite often whether I am building a model, writing an article, or working on my own full-size cars… Please tell me this is normal.
MPS: One project in particular for me was the 1/24th teardrop trailer I started to build. I downloaded the plans from the web, steamed the wood to get the shape correct, found the appropriate fenders, built the inside cabinets then promptly lost interest. It was months before I even looked at it. But then, BAM! it was time to complete it. And if memory serves, it was less than a few days to finish up. To this day, I don’t know why that happened. My theory is that creativity comes in waves and once it crests, you’ll lose interest quickly, so work fast.
Generally I’m really good about completing projects. I learned that from my Dad.
GIC: From that first “Gee, I should build a model of (insert ‘random building type’ here)!” thought-snipe, to the finished, photo-ready structure, about how much time on average would you say has elapsed (including research / mockup / construction / finishing / etc)?
MPS: Around 4 weeks per building is a good average. The Bungalow house took much longer because the interior is finished down to the carpets, sheets on the bed, canisters in the kitchen a fold down ironing board (What was I thinking?) The glider on the front porch actually rocks back and forth. And didn’t I recently say that you don’t need excessive details to make something look real? I believe the house is a powerful symbol for me so I had to put that extra “something” in it. If it’s any consolation, the doors and windows do not open.
GIC: Your method of photo-staging dioramas atop a strategically parked car in a public space is both ingenious and slightly terrifying. Have you ever been accosted while staging your outdoor shoots? Ever have one get away from you (no) thanks to an ill cross-wind?
MPS: Oh yes. I make sure when I’m shooting in a neighborhood, to go around to all the houses and get permission to be there. I also take a photo book of my pictures to let curious people get a handle on what I’m doing. Seeing a man taking photos of model cars and miniature buildings in your neighborhood is not the most common thing in the world, so people get anxious. I had one gentleman grant me permission to set up, but then started to berate me for what I was doing. Occasionally, the cops will drive by and ask me to move on, even though I’m on public property.
There was one time when the reverse was true: the family said I could set up near their driveway and I was left alone for some time. Then one of the children came out and started to watch me, followed by a few more. Then Mom showed up and made a call, on her cell phone, to the husband. He drove up with a car load of relatives within minutes. It was party central! I let everyone look through the viewfinder of my camera so they could see how the scene would turn out. By the end of the session it was hugs and High-Fives all around… it was a good time. Those particular photos from that shoot are the Corner Superette shot with the milk truck, and the Elgin Theater with the ’49 Mercury driving by.
Only [time the wind affected me was] once, when I was shooting the ’49 Oldsmobile at the lake. That cross wind picked up the whole base and sent all 6 diecasts flying – I never moved so fast in my life. The good news is there were no casualties! Thank you Great Spirit!
GIC: If traditional artists and musicians often starve for their craft, modelers often risk their digits and brain cells from errant x-acto blades and paint fumes. Strange as it sounds, a workshop and modeling can be hazardous. Ever find yourself at a clinic at 3am to reattach a thumb? (*ahem*)
MPS: I have sliced parts of my anatomy and, finding that I had no bandages, used super glue to stop the bleeding. It works great and it leaves no scars. Who knew?
Our interview concludes tomorrow with the essential Hoon’s Query in all of this: a look at the cars themselves. Where, How, and Why are certain ones used, what can we expect in the future, and what would Mr. Smith drive? Check in tomorrow to find out!
Again: enjoy a new gallery of selected works below; when you’re done collecting your brain shards, be sure to see even more at and begin the hunt anew…
And remember to rep some hoon love in the comments!
[Photo credits: Michael Paul Smith]