Mike Eliason Photographs ‘Santa Barbara and Beyond’

A Love Story to His Hometown

Mike Eliason Photographs ‘Santa Barbara and Beyond’

A Love Story to His Hometown

By Nick Welsh | December 9, 2021

Mike Eliason is a world-class photojournalist and artist who just happens to have spent his whole life living in Santa Barbara. Most (but not all) of his first and only book — Santa Barbara and Beyond: The Photography of Mike Eliason — is a passionately requited love story between Eliason and his hometown. 

Eliason takes you places you think you’ve seen so many times that you stopped seeing them. But he shows them to you in ways you never could have imagined. At a time when Santa Barbara’s housing prices, both for sale and for rent, are among the most excruciating in the country, Eliason’s photos remind us — without trying to make any socioeconomic point at all — of the underlying forces driving this inevitably painful reality. With the release of his book, our socioeconomic reality will get only more painful.

Drones have become an essential tool in Eliason’s toolbox, stretching what had been strictly two-dimensional planes into the realm of the 3-D. But be sure to read the instructions, Eliason warns; because he didn’t, there’s now a drone at the bottom of the ocean where he was photographing whales. | Credit: Eric Isaacs/emiphoto.com

Truly and ridiculously, Santa Barbara is a  beautiful place to live.

The people who get to live here, truly and ridiculously, are lucky to do so. 

In person, Eliason is notoriously low-key and self-effacing. Even so, he betrays the quietly subversive intelligence of a man who knows too much. And that’s because he does. 

For 25 years, Eliason has consistently stolen the show while shooting for three of Santa Barbara’s local newspapers. Since then — for the past 10 years — he’s functioned as staff photographer for the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, a human Swiss Army knife assigned to the department’s public information detail. 

That one of the most accomplished photojournalists ever to shoot in Santa Barbara is not working for a news publication also happens to be ridiculous, almost criminally so. That he is shooting for a fire department instead is akin to Leonardo da Vinci drawing composite sketches for the Tuscan police department.

This too, in its own Santa Barbara way, is ridiculous, but wonderfully so for the community at large, as well as for Eliason himself.

This book was made largely due to the initiative of the husband-and-wife team who created a small but thriving publishing company, Shoreline Publishing Group — publisher Jim Buckley and graphic designer Patty Kelley.

Don’t try to get this shot at home. Eliason stood on Stearns Wharf in a puddle of water while using a metal tripod to get this shot, which went instantly viral.

Eliason and Buckley first got to know each other during the late 1990s. Buckley — a certified sports nut who was the Independent’s first sports editor — was working for the National Football League when he hired Eliason to shoot games. On most Sundays for many years, Mike could be found prowling the sidelines of NFL stadiums and everywhere else the pro sport is played, including an aircraft carrier in the middle of nowhere. When Eliason moved to the Mesa in 2014, he would often bump into Buckley, who also lives there.

About two years ago, Eliason began posting his images — mostly natural and urban landscapes crackling with drama and drenched in color — on social media. At that time, discourse on the World Wide Web was consumed almost entirely by rants for and against Donald Trump. The noise was overwhelming; it was also depressing. In an act of gentle rebellion, Eliason decided the world was in desperate need of something to go “Wow!” over; while Eliason himself would never say so, his photographs exactly fit the bill. 

Eliason knew State Street’s freeway underpass offered stark lighting contrasts; all he had to do was wait for a light-colored horse to prance by with someone wearing a dark-colored outfit on its back to get the shot that doesn’t look like just another Fiesta photo.

Maybe the whole world didn’t pay attention, but Santa Barbara certainly did. People wanted more. And more. Eliason found himself racing in a gerbil wheel of getting up one new image a day. Soon, he had 22,000 followers. Out of this, the book idea was hatched. Buckley would take care of all the publishing logistics, Kelley would cull the photos and design the book, and Eliason would provide an avalanche of images from which to choose. 

Notably not present are any fire or natural disaster photographs. As either firefighter or reporter, Eliason reckons he responded to every single fire to hit Santa Barbara since 1985. One of the worst was the debris flow that attacked Montecito with such violent abandon in 2018. He was one of the first to respond in the morning. At first, he said, it was so dark you couldn’t see anything. But by the time it was over, he’d seen things he could never unsee. 

This is not that book. Maybe that book will one day be published. It should be. It could tell the story of Santa Barbara’s shifting ecology of fire in the time of climate change, amazingly, without being preachy or ideological.

But Santa Barbara and Beyond is a book of celebration, of hope, of reverberation and rejuvenation. Ask Buckley what his favorite picture is, and he doesn’t pause. It’s a shot taken from the bluffs overlooking Leadbetter Beach — not far, incidentally, from Eliason’s home. A black-suited paddle boarder rides a gentle swell into an unseen shore as dusk begins its descent. The man is in the immediate foreground against a sweeping background of ocean and towering sky illuminated by a warm wash of mingling tone. The only interruption is a horizontal sliver of indigo where the sky and the sea converge far in the distance at the blur of our offshore islands. The image induces a palpable sense of vastness and serenity.

For a moment there, it’s just you and the sea.

Eliason was born in 1967, just two years after his parents moved here. His father had been a cop in Torrance and moved to Carpinteria just after it was incorporated as a city. He was one of the first seven officers to serve as the fledgling police force. When Eliason was a kid — one of three — his father would roll up in his patrol car to watch Mike play baseball. It was that kind of time and that kind of family. His mom had been a cop, too, in Ventura. She transferred the skills she learned on the beat maintaining order and sanity at a high-powered, high-pressured CPA firm in Santa Barbara where tempers were known to flare more than occasionally. 

After driving through the Gaviota Tunnel nearly twice a day during the 14 years Eliason lived in the Santa Ynez Valley, he got a yen to see what it looked like from above.

Burly, sturdy, and strong, Eliason gravitated to sports. He played football and baseball. But he was into drama too. In 9th grade, Eliason got his first real whiff of photography. He’d enrolled in a high school photography class — one of only three he would take — but what really did it was getting to shoot the Blue Angels at an aerial acrobatics show. His father borrowed a friend’s camera so Mike would have something to shoot. That, he said, “opened my eyes to the world of photography.”

It was obvious he had something special. In his senior year, Eliason’s high school principal pulled Mike aside and asked him to tell the story of Santa Barbara County for an exhibit — documenting all of California’s 58 counties — that would be shown in the State Capitol in Sacramento.

After graduating high school, Eliason enrolled at City College and signed up at the firefighters’ academy at Allan Hancock College. His classmates there have either retired, he said, or become fire chiefs. Mike served as a reservist in the Carpinteria Fire District for eight years. At the same time, he shot photos for the Carpinteria and Montecito newspapers, then owned by Jesse Roth. Later, he would be hired at a long-ago version of the News-Press. His editor there was Dave McCumber, a quick-twitch guy endowed with a sense of adventure and play. Eliason worked there for 25 years, routinely producing eye-popping photographs even when given the most mundane of assignments. 

Eliason is an unapologetic sucker for dramatic cloud formations, as this oak with a backdrop of riffled clouds attests.

Looking back, Eliason ruminates over the forks in his road; should he have stayed with firefighting? Did he take the right path? Ultimately, however, Eliason was given the opportunity few people get — to go back and wander both sides of the fork. When Santa Barbara’s daily newspaper imploded 15 years ago, Eliason was offered a part-time gig with the county’s fire department by then-chief Mike Dyer. His job was to help out with public information, which by then had emerged as an essential component to any public safety emergency-response effort. After all his years as a working photojournalist, Eliason knew what the media needed, and when they needed it; he spoke their language. When it came to using photography to tell the story and explain where the fire was, no one could do it better. 

Critically, he could also harness social media to reach the public quickly. “When it comes to evacuations, we’re not doing this because we want to. It’s about keeping people safe. When people resist and refuse to go, they’re putting others at risk,” he said. “I try to keep it simple and straight and not overburden people with what sounds like cop talk and gibberish.”

But as an experienced reporter steeped in Santa Barbara traditions, Eliason was comfortable expressing historical perspectives unusual — if not unheard of — among public safety officers. As a reporter covering the response to the 1/9 Debris Flow, I encountered Eliason in the field one day, knee-deep in muck. “This is Montecito’s Pearl Chase moment,” he commented. 

I remember wondering how many public information officers on the job today could riff so precisely on the role played by Pearl Chase — Santa Barbara’s strong-willed, strong-armed civic matriarch — who leveraged the 1925 earthquake into a transformation of a dusty Santa Barbara’s downtown into the red-tiled white-stucco style we have today.

“Whales,” Eliason said, “are such divas.”

Eliason is a photojournalist who happens to be an artist; he’s also an artist who happens to be a photojournalist. What he captures — even in a coffee-table book featuring stunning photos of beautiful places — is not so much the image, but the moment out of which images spring.

He knows, for example, when the fog burns off Lake Cachuma and what kind of curtains of mist that generates. Cruising the waterfront one fog-drenched night, Eliason quickly figured out that the downtown train station was the place to be. He planted himself on the platform between the tracks and waited. “I don’t fish. I never have. I don’t have the patience,” he said. “But I can wait 30 minutes, 90 minutes for a photo.” 

It takes more than a heavy fog to achieve the “Edward Hopper-y” effect achieved here at Santa Barbara’s historic train depot, but it didn’t hurt.

In this case, it would not take that long before a young man wearing a white shirt and dark pants would walk, head down, into Eliason’s frame. The resulting photo is an arresting meditation of mood and mist with multiple lines of lights and tracks converging in a drama of compositional magic. Without any human presence, it would have been a great image, but empty and sterile. With just one person, however, it was perfect. Or, as Eliason described it, “Edward Hopper-y.”

Eliason talks about preparation, planning, and practice. He also talks about luck. His book abounds with the photographic equivalent of inside straights Eliason was “lucky” enough to draw because of preparation. By far, the most spectacular example of this is Eliason’s photo of the lightning storm over Stearns Wharf that was published on the front page of the Los Angeles Times and shown on Good Morning America, CBS News, and a host of other media outlets. 

Eliason jokes about being out on the wharf with a metal tripod standing in a puddle of water during a storm that let loose no less than 1,000 strikes throughout Southern California. “The only thing I was missing was a nine iron,” he laughed. The real story is that Eliason has two apps that allow him to track weather. One specifically tracks lightning. He knew exactly where the lightning was coming from and where it was going. And to maximize the effect, he set his camera for a 60-second exposure. Translated, that means his photograph captured every bolt of lightning to explode within his frame in a 60-second span of time.

Little wonder it went viral.

This aerial shot — courtesy of a drone — shows the almost psychedelic visual effects of having Carpinteria’s salt marsh inundated with water from a king tide.

But sometimes, it’s more improvisational. There’s a startlingly simple but mysterious photo in which Eliason riffs on grass and sand and a Queen Anne’s palm set against a cotton-ball-white sky. At first, you don’t know what it is. “I got stuck in the sand trap at Sandpiper Golf Course,” Eliason said, explaining how the shot came to be. From this perspective, he saw the possibility of something that not everyone would. By tilting the camera just so, he could keep the ocean — lurking so scenically in the background — out of the frame. And that would effectively make the sky seem much lower than it was — a big heavy rectangle of uninterrupted white on top of the green of the grass and the yellow of the sand. “If I landed the ball in the green,” he laughed, “I would never have seen it.”

The book is being sold only at local bookstores — which Eliason will be hitting for a meet-and-greet marketing tour beginning this week. It most emphatically will not, however, be sold on Amazon. Eliason is gratified by the warmth with which his work has been received over the years. “There’s nothing like a mom telling me she still has one of my photos of her kids on her refrigerator,” he said.

CORRECTION: Shoreline Publishing Group is the correct name of the book’s publisher, not Shoreline Press as it appeared in an earlier version of this story.


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