Recently, I came across photographer Michael Paul Smith, who has an online showcase of his miniature scene photographs.
I asked him to tell of his process, influences and techniques.
I first start off with some very rough sketches on the particular building I’m thinking of making. Really, they are mere scribbles, but they capture the key points of the structure. I have to ask myself questions like: when was this building built and in what style of architecture. Has this building been added to over the years and if so, in what way. If you walk down the center of town, and really study the buildings, you can see their history. For what I’m doing, my structures have to be generic enough so they don’t look too unusual, yet they have to have some character to them to make them interesting. I also study photographs from the past. There are books out entitled Then and Now, which show photographs of buildings taken in the 1890’s and also in the present at the exact same spot. These are very telling because you can see how drastically or subtly things have changed. I want my models to have the feeling that they have traveled in time.
Surprisingly, I don’t have fancy tools. A table saw, a drill press and a belt sander are the big items. A huge amount of work is done with an X-Acto knife and a sanding block. Once I construct the shell of the building out of Gatorboard, a light weight resin coated paper with a thin foam center, it’s just a matter of cladding the outside with the material of choice. Does it want to be brick, stucco, or clap board? There are many commercially available products that reproduce these materials at the proper scale. Then come the painting. If the facade is brick, then what kind of brick? Who knew that there are regional brick types?
Being from Pittsburgh, I wanted to reproduce a yellow and buff brick that was very popular. Also a brown glazed cinder block. Brick itself is made up of many colors. If you look at one closely, you can see black, rust, gray and orange speckles. I achieve this look by using commercially available spray paint in a cans. The first coat completely covers the material I’m using. The subsequent coats, of different colors, are applied by holding the object being sprayed about a foot away from the can. Very light coats that just mist the surface. After it’s dry, I hand paint the mortar with very thinned down gray/ beige water based paint. One thing to remember is not to use gloss paint. If you look around, many objects have a flat or satin finish.
Another very important rule, if not the most important, is to keep everything in scale. Nothing should look too big or small in relationship to everything else in the model or photo. When representing cloth or fabric, I use tissue paper that has been crumpled to the point of being limp. Real cloth is just too thick and it will look out of scale.
Something I learned very early on was the adage: If you can’t make something properly, then don’t make it at all. You can always ” visually suggest” something without actually putting in all the details. It’s amazing what the brain fills in for you. If you look closely at my photos, you really can see that I didn’t put in everything. The doors don’t hinges. There are no drain spouts. Yet the photos appear to be dense with detail. There have been times when I needed a building in the background to fill a spot, so I’d tape a vacuum formed plastic sheet of brick onto the side of a box. It did the trick.
When it comes to lighting the models and sets, I keep it as simple as possible. For indoor shots, it’s my trusty 60 watt light bulb in a clip lamp held down low, for a dramatic effect. To illuminate the interiors of the buildings, I use 5 watt Christmas tree lights. They’re just bright enough to send out a warm glow.
You might have noticed that my earlier photographs are somewhat pristine and bright. I was just starting to learn how to photograph my models plus taking them outside. The learning curve was steep and I was making it up as I went along. As I got more comfortable with the whole process, throwing dust, water and baking soda was less traumatic. I’ve been toying with the idea of mud, lately. It could be interesting.
One of my biggest influences in terms of “look and feel” is a photographer named Charles W Cushman. There is a website of all of his color photos from the 1930’s through the late 1950’s. It’s a visual time machine. The images are not quite snapshots but neither are they formal. You have a real feeling of time and place when you study them.
One of the most asked questions to me is: why are there no people in my pictures? That was a deliberate choice on my part. I want the viewer to put themselves into each frame along with their memories. This creates a more personalized and almost dreamlike experience.
The camera I use is just a $75, 6 mega pixel Sony. Nothing fancy. I’m not even sure I can manually override the settings. It’s just aim and shoot.
The biggest challenge for me is finding the appropriate background for the models. It’s harder than it you’d think because there are so many cars, signs, new buildings and people filling up the scene. Abandoned parking lots work best. But I have to have at least one block of unobstructed view from the model to the background. At that point, everything becomes the proper scale.