This one came up in the DPChallenge forums; one of the members there found Michael Paul Smith’s photo stream “Photos of my models.” My first thought had been models, as in, people posing for photos.  What Mr. Smith has put together is – at least in my opinion – even cooler.  This is a photo stream dedicated to models, miniature recreations of 1950’s vintage buildings, cars, and homes that come together in what Mr. Smith calls “a dream-like reconstruction of the town I grew up in.”

"Post Card Image-Black and White" © Michael Paul Smith

Most of us are lucky if we have any photos of the hometown we remember from our childhood; Mr Smith has the amazing step of recreating it, albeit with some artistic liberties.  (Although who’s hometown couldn’t use a few liberties for improvement?)  The attention to detail and amazing setups he uses result in photos that are almost surreal.  Looking at them casually – and for some, even looking at them in depth – my first reaction is to take them at face value, as actual vintage photos.

What makes the whole thing even cooler, from a photography perspective, is that the photos are all straight from camera, according to Mr. Smith.  There’s no photoshop trickery involved, just good old fashioned patience and technique brought together to meld the world of his models to the real world around them.  Consider this photo:

"Elgin Park morning" © Michael Paul Smith

Looks like your typical 1950’s morning scene.  House on the edge of town, someone coming down the street, off in the distance some Pennsylvania hills and a bridge.  Natural sunlight, this could have come out of your grandmother’s scrapbook.  Except not quite.

"Sense of scale 2" © Michael Paul Smith

Here’s what we’re really seeing: a model diorama setup on a card table in a field.  The trick to the whole enterprise seems to be finding a location that can be merged with the models while maintaining the correct perspective and scale in the resulting photo.  No photo-merging in PS, no cloning, no software tricks.  Just a complete mastery of the technique.

If you read through the photo descriptions, you’ll find that Mr. Smith does reveal parts of his secret along the way.  In one place he mentions keeping the camera at eye level – that is, eye level for a person standing in the diorama.  In another, he talks about doing an indoor shoot, using regular light bulbs as scene lights and LEDs for interior or accent lighting.  (Many of his photos are shot indoors in a studio setting, using artificial backgrounds and lighting.)

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find any reference to the camera gear that Mr. Smith uses to create his photos.  Off the cuff I’d say that a tilt-shift lens would be the most likely tool for the job, although a macro lens might also work.  Since I haven’t done any of this kind of shooting myself, I’m sort of grasping at straws here, and I would definitely be interested in learning for certain what gear was used.  But I won’t turn this into a gear-head discussion.

Regardless of the camera and lens, it is clear that Mr. Smith is a master artist with a very vivid vision of the past, and a real flair for recreating it in his models.  Looking through his photos is like looking back in time, with just a bit of an artistic touch.  On one level I marvel at the photos themselves, and on another at the skill involved in designing, building, and setting up these sets.

For a real treat, watch the entire photo stream as a slideshow – it really does it far more justice than the thumbnails.

"East Main Street-1951" © Michael Paul Smith

On a final note, after a lot of study, I think I finally determine what it is about the photos that makes you finally decide that something isn’t quite right, that factor that in the end breaks the illusion that they may be real vintage photos.  Everything is too perfect.  The cars are pristine, the streets in perfect repair, the homes and buildings just too clean.  We’re used to seeing dirt, which is the one thing that Mr. Smith’s photos are missing (which is why the winter photos are even more realistic, I think, because the artificial snow helps hide this).

I’d be very, very interested in seeing a scene put together by this gentleman that included some wear, tear, and grit.  I’d really like to see if I could even tell the difference between the diorama and reality.

Brent Pennington is a freelance photographer and the driving force behind The Roving Photographer. When he\’s not working with portraiture or promotional clients, he’s usually in the field, hiking, or kayaking in pursuit of nature and wildlife shots.

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