THROUGH THE LENS: An interview with Mike Shea, photographer, Tritone Photography |

THROUGH THE LENS: An interview with Mike Shea, photographer, Tritone Photography

Jim Bair
Special to The Union

Editor’s note: Today, The Union introduces a new monthly feature “Through the Lens,” which will introduce members of the Nevada County Camera Club and share their work with the community. Visit for more information on the Camera Club

Mike Shea, has been with the Nevada County Camera Club for several years, been a speaker, a photo critic, and has had numerous gallery shows.

While some may know his work ranging from crystal sharp landscapes to creative mood-engendering composites to professional-level shoots of blues singers in action, we may not know of his industrious photographic life.

Mike calls it “working on projects.”

Perhaps the most ambitious project is a book named “Emigrant Wilderness Place Names.” His objective is to identify the origin of the names of lakes, meadows, mountains, and passes in California’s Emigrant Wilderness. Having been to so many notable places searching for great landscape photos may seem like good news, but it leaves Mike with thousands of photos. When combined with photos of maps, documents, newspaper, books, old photos in need of scanning, he had to rename and organize over 4,500 images.

Essentially, he used his camera as a scanner. The resultant digital files can be organized more easily than paper.

And the result will be a trail though history, the names leading to history — after all, names of things almost always associate with an event, a person, or a natural phenomenon. As if using computer tools we are familiar with wasn’t enough, Mike is teaching himself the Adobe program InDesign which requires mastering new terminology for such production feats. He is somewhat miffed that very little experience with other Adobe products is transferable to InDesign.

Well, one book might not be enough — he has plans for another one.


As a Witness for the Blues leverages Mike’s long-term passion for blues music. Mike’s photos have been used for the cover of Blues Music Magazine and to illustrate many stories in the magazines over the years. Playing in that league requires knowledge of who’s who, and Mike will apply that to selecting which artists will be covered.

Selection criteria include being in the Blues Hall of Fames, having a Grammy, or be recognized as a blues artist by an authority on the Blues. Just to be sure, research will be done on the artist to check qualifications. Mike balances this with his goal of including people of all ages and types. For the musician project he made a composite of several pictures from magazines and two cover shots.

Mike was called one of the “top blues chroniclers” by Guitar International Magazine several years ago. His musician images have appeared in Debra DeSalvo’s book, The Language of the Blues and a number of print magazines, including Blues Music Magazine, Blues Revue, Downbeat, Elmore, and Blue Suede News.

Being a witness for such an important American genre takes some incredible photographic skills, especially to be selected for a national magazine cover. Since sharpness is key, a good camera (a full sensor Nikon with a f2.8 80-200 zoom) and shooting at a fast shutter speed are vital. Speed must be balanced against f-stop although depth of field is not the primary goal. Speed is not only in the camera, but it is part of his technique. Mike continually scans for the best moment to shoot often based on the music (which he knows well), where the band pauses and the musician’s dramatic points.


Mike’s third project leads us to his life background. Growing up in San Francisco can be viewed as a fitting beginning for any artist. Although interrupted at age 13 by a move to Millbrae from Potrero Hill, he nourished his artistic bent at the College of San Mateo and then San Francisco State University. Somewhere in there, he was “psychedelicized” which seems appropriate for the San Francisco area in the 1960s. He is still interested in the changing parts of the City that tourists don’t visit, the graffiti art and the endless supply of hill tops.

Art took a bit of a sideline with marriage, two boys and a career with the Postal Service. Starting at the carrier level he rose through the ranks to lead the San Francisco District IT (Information Technology) department, all the while deepening his sense of the great city.

The third project is aptly called The Native Son Returns, and return he did to all the peaks and high points of San Francisco for panorama opportunities to the industrial “valleys”, catching the evolving city at its gutsy core from the 1970s on. His photographic challenge was stitching together City scenes with the contrasting verticals and horizontals in the cityscape, and the task of using B&W photos from way back when.

The fourth project is more of an integration of past and present, and it features model composites. For example, placing images of models in different settings, such as Ask Alice where the model was placed in a doll house, or a woman in an old window, or a lovely lady behind a broken old window. Ask Alice arose from a model shoot that needed something more.

For Mike, it came quickly that he should “psychedelicize” the interior of a house reflecting the San Francisco area during the ’60s, adding pieces of photos that were symbolic of that period. This project could be called “models in other settings” and has led to juried shows at two art galleries.

There’s a fifth project called Motel Rooms that builds on the idea of series. Inspired by the conceptual photography of Mike Mandel exhibited at SF MOMA (San Francisco Modern Museum of Art), Mike built on the idea that “if you look at any one image by itself, you’d say “so what” but to see them all together is powerful. So it is for a lifetime of motel rooms, individually lost to the travails of travel, but collectively of significant creative interest.

For a photographer as productive and creative as Mike, there’s lot’s more to his art. This quote says so much about his life: “Work to live, not live to work.” Amen.

Jim Bair is a member of the Nevada County Camera Club. See his work at

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