29 April 2018

Elgin Park – Remarkable American Town Frozen in Time

Imagine a town as time capsule, where nothing has changed since the 1960s. Certainly, there are examples the world over but for the most part these towns have been abandoned, left to their own devices due to the ravages of war, nuclear pollution or simply changing demographics.  However, there is one town in America that still looks just as it would have in the decade that gave birth to rock and roll.  Welcome to Elgin Park.

The minutia of everyday American life is there to be seen. The Top Toys store is there on the corner, pristine and just how it was all those decades ago.

The Chevy Dealership is open, waiting for customers.

The OK used car lot is a marketplace of glistening, washed and waxed chrome-ladened splendor, tempting buyers to part with their hard earned dollars.

…and that 55 Ford Crown Victoria is in remarkable condition for its age.

A passenger train hurtles through the town of Elgin Park on a hot and dry summer’s night, heading for the bright lights of the big city. Yet wait a second, hold on.  How can a place have been preserved so well for so long?  Plus, where are all the people? Let’s pan out a little.

Surprised? A modern day Gulliver has suddenly arrived and his name is Michael Paul Smith.

Perhaps you may already have guessed but the picture postcard town of Elgin Towers, seen on a snowy winter's day above, owes its condition to something a little more than an impenetrable dome come time capsule around its borders.

In fact the town is a creation, a mental combination of memory and fiction brought to life by Michael Paul Smith (pictured above) of Winchester, Massachusetts.

Smith has been making models of small town American life for over a quarter of a century.  Elgin Park is, in fact, a 1/24 scale model. It is not based on any of the towns with similar names you will find in the US.  It is, however, wholly his own creation and exists only through the eye of a lens.

Yet these pictures look so real – almost perfect captures of moments in time that, in reality never happened, at least as our eyes perceive them.  One reason perhaps is the very clever use of real backgrounds to enhance the verisimilitude of the pictures. Smith takes his pictures outdoors against the backdrop of the environs of his real home town of Winchester. In this case you can say with no irony that the camera always lies.

Once he finds the right backdrop for one of his ‘sets’ then Smith pursues a system of trial and error until the right shot is captured.  A shadow out of place, a tree in the background which is too tall for the set and the whole illusion would be lost. The same is true of 'night shots' where the lighting is all important.

What truly impresses me about the whole process is that the pictures end up looking like scenes or shots from movies.  You could just imagine James Dean walking down Main Street, hand in hand with Natalie Wood, railing about how unfair his parents are to him.  You can picture the cast of the original Ocean’s 11 pacing up and down the sidewalk in anticipation of their next masterplan. Or perhaps you might spot Elvis, on his way to cutting his first record.

Perhaps that is one reason that Smith deliberately leaves his sets free of people – so that we can populate them from our own imagination and so in a way contribute to the creative process ourselves. These wonderful pictures of Smith’s amazing sets show that the past retains a power to pull us back, even to times before we were born.

As you can imagine, Smith’s pictures of Elgin Park have caused quite a stir and to celebrate his project a book has been launched.  Although it will not be available in bookstores till May 1 you can purchase in on Amazon.

Kuriositas would like to thank Michael Paul Smith for his very kind permission to reproduce the above pictures, including two which are only in the book, available on Amazon.  Please visit his Flickr Photostream but be prepared for quite a long stay in Elgin Park. Stock up on coffee and snacks before you transport yourself back in town because you can’t buy them when you get there!