For a town that has seen more than 74 million visitors over the past five years, Elgin Park is inexplicably difficult to locate on a map or even with a GPS navigation system. Once you get there, you’ll find this small hamlet oddly disconnected from modern society, not so much a throwback in time as it is a freeze-frame.

There is no cell phone service in Elgin Park. Its residents don’t text, and they certainly don't tweet. The most popular form of social media remains discussing stories from the town newspaper over a fresh cup of coffee at the local luncheonette. (Elgin Park does not have a Starbucks.)

Ironically, despite the lack of WiFi anywhere within city limits, the Internet remains the sole route into Elgin Park, a city that exists only in the cloud. Michael Paul Smith, an artist in Winchester, Mass., birthed Elgin Park when he posted his first images of it on the photo-sharing site Flickr in 2008.



Elgin Park, A Different Kind of Town
Smith calls this photo “Transitioning of an Era,” for emerging trends in music and car design. It’s 1964, and the ’59 Pontiac Bonneville dwarfs new compact and midsize cars being introduced. Details in the record store window, though not easily seen, include miniaturized concert posters for Ray Charles, Ike and Tina Turner and Martha and the Vandellas.


Scenes depicting pristine vintage cars parked in idyllic small-town settings appear to be snapshots retrieved from someone’s attic. In a sense, that is what they are. To compose his photos, Smith channels recollections of growing up in Sewickley, Penn., a small Ohio River town northwest of Pittsburgh. Smith’s high school guidance counselor suggested abandoning his interest in art and seeking work in the area’s steel mills. His family moved to Massachusetts when he was 17, and he still lives in Winchester, a few miles north of Boston.

“Elgin Park is not an exact re-creation of Sewickley, but it does capture the mood of my memories.” Smith says. “I didn’t know where the name came from,” he adds, explaining that it was not inspired by Elgin, Ill., or any other Elgin.

Smith’s Flickr page was attracting about 200 views a day for a while, and then the Internet took charge. Smith, who was 60 and new to computers at the time -- and using an 11-year-old iMac -- said a Flickr user unknown to him used that site’s slideshow function and distributed an e-mail that went viral in early 2010. His daily page views skyrocketed, hitting 750,000 at times. By that spring, the count had reached 20 million. In mid-October of this year, views surpassed 74 million, still growing by about 20,000 per day. Many repeat visitors leave appreciative comments.

Early on, Flickr visitors posted messages inquiring if the images were real life, scale models or conjured with Photoshop. The lack of people in the photos and the cars’ too-perfect condition were clues that reality had somehow been altered.

Smith happily revealed his magic. The cars are from his collection of about 300 1/24-scale die-cast models, most from the Danbury Mint. Collectors prize the incredibly detailed models, which are not kits and could cost $150-$250. (Sadly, production ended earlier this year.)



Elgin Park, A Different Kind of Town
With his photos that blend scale model sets and outdoor backdrops, Michael Paul Smith created a town called Elgin Park on the photo-sharing site Flickr. He calls this scene “January 1, 1959.” Yes, that's an Edsel station wagon.


Smith, who had been laid off from his job as an architectural modeler, pondered selling the collection. Instead, tapping job experiences that also included advertising art director and museum display designer, he constructed scale sets for the cars and photographed them against outdoor backdrops to add realism. The photographic technique, called forced perspective, requires estimating the proper distance of the scale sets to the outdoor backdrops; Smith does it by eye.

“Someone sent me a mathematical formula for figuring it out, but I don’t bother,” he says.

Smith did not actually construct an entire town. Using hobby store materials, he built about a dozen houses and buildings, which he re-purposes for different scenes. He finishes his models in painstaking detail, including adding correct-scale shingles to houses, hand-painting brick facades and simulating natural weathering. Vintage magazine ads provide the material for period-correct signs and billboards. For winter scenes, baking soda serves as snow, and spraying it with water makes slush.

Smith shoots night scenes in his small three-room apartment. Professionals might cringe at his lighting setup, which usually includes a 60-watt household light bulb suspended overhead and LEDs placed in some of the buildings.



Creator, Michael Paul Smith
Smith sets up one of his forced-perspective photos. He built a model of his childhood home in Sewickley, Penn., and drove there from Massachusetts to photograph it. His memories of Sewickley inspired “Elgin Park.”

His photographic equipment is also surprisingly simple. He started with a $75 Sony six-megapixel camera and currently uses a 12-megapixel Canon PowerShot and a newer iMac. He doesn’t use Photoshop or other software to manipulate his images, though he occasionally applies filter effects to age a photo or to mimic period-specific film.

Smith once tried a high-end DSLR camera, but he says the photos were “too good” to depict a town where the calendar stopped in 1966. That’s around the time he left Sewickley, and it’s the newest vehicle you’ll find in Elgin Park.

“There was such a big jump in 1967 in society, in music, fashion and other aspects. I didn't want Elgin Park to make that leap,” he says, sounding like a protective father.

Although his scenes lack people, Smith has imbued Elgin Park with a palpable sense of life. One can imagine some of its residents standing just out of the lens’s view, going about their day. Smith gives the viewer’s imagination some help by accompanying his Flickr vignettes with brief fictional descriptions, many naming the unseen Elgin Park residents involved.

The attention paid to Elgin Park earned Smith a degree of fame and some additional income. Following an article in The New York Times (by this author), Smith was featured in a network TV segment. The Museum of Arts and Design in New York invited him to join two-dozen international artists in a show, “Otherworldly: Artist Dioramas and Small Spectacles,” which also exhibited in France. For the show, Smith built a model of his childhood home in Sewickley and photographed it there.

Lionel, the model train maker, hired Smith to photograph some of its products “in the Elgin Park style” for a series of fine art prints. In 2011, art book publisher Prestel issued a volume of Smith’s work, “Elgin Park: An Ideal American Town.” This year, an independent film crew made a short documentary about Smith's work, and he began work on a second book for another publisher.

Smith continues to create Elgin Park photos, but now at a slower pace. He has suffered strokes and neuropathy, occasionally losing feeling in his extremities.

“It’s harder to grip things,” he says. “It takes me two or three times longer to set up a shoot.”

Smith recently sold his Subaru wagon and now walks to shooting locations within about a mile of his home, shuttling his models and sets on a luggage cart. Despite his physical limitations, he sees his work continually evolving.

He is most proud of its impact on others: the Alzheimer’s patient for whom the photos triggered buried memories; the nearly silent autistic teen who spoke up to talk about the images; a child in India who sent Smith a photo of a beat-up toy car he photographed in his own crude diorama -- and the many Flickr viewers who continue to enjoy the work.

This little town is on the map as far as Smith is concerned.

“Elgin Park has an atmosphere, it has gravity,” he says.