The Context & Content of Dioramas

Professor Galaxy Diorama / John Fraim

The Warmth of the Sun / Beachboys


I left the International Plastic Modelers Society (IPMS) maybe four years ago but certainly am still creating models. But also placing them in the dramatic context or environment of a diorama. Something pretty much outside any model making club today.

Many creators of models today feel together on very much. It seems more important that they unify on what brings them together rather than what pushes them apart.

Grew up building plastic model cars, ships, planes, and railroading stuff as my father had a huge HO layout in the basement. Left modeling for many years to pursue a professional career after UCLA and Loyola Law School. First in the corporate world in San Francisco and then back to the Midwest to work with my brother. Had a marketing consulting/advertising firm for years. Have written much on symbols and symbolism. But in the past few years, have come back to models and modeling in new ways. Certainly, much with scratch built plastic structures and models.

This time, as I express in the post below, putting models in the context of an environment. Sometimes their true environment. Sometimes in a new environment the model has not been in before. This time since leaving IPMS has allowed me to explore new modeling concepts in creating dioramas containing plastic and wood models.

To my mind, there is an incredible movement in modeling today towards placing models in a particular context. After all, advertising models (cars, people, products) are always places in the context of a commercial or a “scene” in a narrative. This opens the ability for a model (object) in a diorama (or dramatic scene or image) that might tap the power of advertising technique placed into a particular snapshot scene of life today in its symbolic setting. Communication power is made the most powerful by agreement between (as Marshall McLuhan might say) the message (content) of the model diorama model and the medium (context) of the model in the diorama. 

There is something that unites all aspects of modeling today. Whether creating models. Or models within the environments of dioramas.

Photo of a Diorama Created by Matthew Albanese

This separates model building from diorama building it seems to me. And therefore, my real reason for leaving IPMS. Certainly nothing against the superb craftsmanship and dedication (and pure artistry) I saw in members of the Rickenbacker IPMS Chapter. It is simply that I am more interested in creating projects in this little-known craft of dioramas. The creation and communication of small dramatic scenes. In fact, these modern symbols placed in certain contexts of communication. In a Commercial. Advertisement. Political Spot. PR Release. Short YouTube Video. As well as ideas for screenplays and films or series on TV. And lastly, by simply works in this new art of creating miniature 3D scenes (or dioramas) by creating a drama in the elements of context and content in dioramas.

Over the past four years, since leaving IPMS, I’ve been in touch with the greatest dioramists in the world. It’s a relatively small group but their work is simply visionary, yet little known to the general world interested in modeling. A few model railroaders like KRP Models on the Internet. Another is Darryl Audette, a co-founding member of Box Diorama. This is a much a theory of controlling light by putting models inside boxes. But today, lighting has greatly changed from the days of the pioneers in Box dioramas like Shep Paine. 

It is more expanding to work out in the open rather than inside boxes. Building objects inside boxes and controlling the lighting has become far less a problem today with advanced cameras, lenses and lighting. Much more diorama making is possible outside the box. 

Yet this site still represents the greatest collection of the great box dioramists including the legendary Shep. The other leading dioramist I’ve been exposed to over the Internet is Matthew Albanese at He is a former fashion photographer in NYC photographing diorama scenes far beyond anything ever seen before. My sight Midnight Oil Studios did a post on Matthew’s brilliant work. As well as Darryl Audette’s brilliant work.

The New Ohio Countryside / John Fraim

I spent a year off and on creating dioramas and have documented in a portfolio of maybe 60 pages. A year creating dioramas and then more writing and photography. Now, back to dioramas again. 

Was pulled more back into modeling a few months ago while somewhat thinking what to do regarding sales of a manuscript I have just completed. The old love of modeling has returned and I’ve created a few dioramas in the past month. It returned much through finding and building a plastic model kit from Walther’s called the Hole-in-One Donut Shop. In N scale plastic. The model is inspired by a Los Angeles icon called Randy’s Donuts in Inglewood.

Completing the model I wanted to place it somewhere but certainly the photo on the box of the model was no inspiration for me. The famous Randy’s that was a cultural icon for me needed to be shown in its true context. That is, under the flight pattern into LAX and at the intersection of two of the busiest streets in LA: Manchester and La Cienega. About 50 feet above the raging river of traffic on the ten lane 405 Freeway. Besides the freeway, there are the two on-ramps to the freeway and the one off-ramp. 

Besides just the diorama, I ordered a micro model of a 737 jet and was putting this into the model. As it would be in real life. Why not place the Walther model within a diorama scene? The problem was N scale was much too large of a scale I wanted to model in. 

Trustworthy Insurance Adjuster / John Fraim

Anyway Jim, after membership in the local Rickenbacker Chapter of the IPMS for maybe six months, I knew the group was not for me. Not because of any modeling ability but rather the focus of this modeling ability. 

Again, it gave me a renewed appreciation and respect for modeling. After many years away. Certainly, many incredible modelers (artists) met in IPMS and had a little diorama of ours placed in the IPMS Journal. But I’m much more interested in pushing context rather than content today. Dioramas of the world. Scenes containing actions. Like scenes in a screenplay. 

Mixing content and context of communication. The two grand symbols always at battle with each other. The battle a never-ending one as these two symbols have a powerful symbolic correspondence to the great Masculine and Feminine symbols of content and context. The particular model itself. Sitting within a particular context.

The battle of symbols at all times. Like on some decently rated dramatic TV series. After all, this is really a battle between those two slippery phenomenology in the ideas of context and content. At least this type of thinking is often classified with weird labels that make sure it is banned from the language of the period. Or placed into obscure discipline areas like phenomenology. The truth is that controllers of culture do not like challenges to their control of culture. Whether one considers these controllers of one political party of the other. It doesn’t matter. Here, the aim is at the controllers of culture and not a political party.

From Darryl Audette

The controllers of modern culture control by devices and methods far different from the old methods of control. More of a softer, more subtle, more hidden, approach to control. Not the hard power of force of the wars of the 20th century. Rather the soft power of cultural symbols that control. Those of entertainment and media. Not the content of directed propaganda but rather the creation and ownership of a perpetual environment of the communication of context. A context of two-way (cool) communication rather than one-way broadcast

Not between the content of ideologies but rather content against the context of containers for ideologies.

It’s a difficult concept for many to get anywhere near comprehending I imagine when there have been so many incredibly embarrassing person in the street interviews of typical citizens. Fox’s Jessie Waters is perhaps king of these street interviews exposing a new level of something beyond stupidity in citizens. Rather, an unawareness of what is happening in the real world of events rather than the media world of events.

Awareness and focus on particular ideas are to be discouraged. The main means of discouraging is not via direct threats but rather distractions of the media, entertainment and drugs of modern culture. Using the powers of popular culture to distract from focus in particular areas or directions.

Scene from The Last Dinosaur Tourist Stop / John Fraim

Always that battle between Context and Content. Never-ending. The Never-Ending Story. To think there can be an ultimate winner is a fiction because the battle is really between the two great symbols of life in context and content. The Feminine and Masculine Archetypes. The powers that create the dynamics of life. From youth to old age. From Feminine to Masculine. And then back to Feminine.

As Carl Jung might observe. Sandplay is an important method of Jungian counseling. Might there be something like diorama play that becomes part of modern psycho-therapy counseling? Dioramas have so far been much the province of architects letting investors see the 3D vision of their investments. Millions are at stake in marketing and sales efforts and dioramas play important parts in these efforts but showing future projects.

But what of dioramas that make more of a statement on the the present or past. Rather than the future?

One to be experienced. The other remembered.

And those that make statements about the future. Only the hope of a future experience one might remember.

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