The History of the Camera Obscura

Black Gallery: Dark Room

by Terry Cunniff, Bill Thomas & John Trefethen

When a small hole is made in the wall of a dark room, an inverted image of the scene outside the window appears on the opposite wall of the room. This phenomena appears to have been known to the Chinese as early as 4 BC and was first described outside China around 1030 by the Arab scholar Alhazen.

Leonardo da Vinci manuscripts from the fifteenth century contain the first clear description of the formation of images by a small hole in a darkened room. By the mid-sixteenth century, lenses were being used to increase the image’s brightness and sharpness. Continue reading “The History of the Camera Obscura”

Inspiration is overrated. Instead of waiting around for the ideal conditions, try this:

As a teacher and artist, I’ve come across the notion of creative block, writers block, painters block–whatever you call it. My students would often say, I don’t have any new ideas. I don’t know what to work on next. My studio is such a mess, I need a cleaning day. I’ve spoken to artist friends who state their fears of running out of ideas or “drying up.” I find all of this nonsense and a tangible representation of their fears of working—of creating the work that needs creating.

I am a firm believer in building one’s routine for daily working. I’ve written about this at length when discussing loading your mind with new ideas. Simply put, working begets working. New ideas arise through process and process is often enjoyable. Chuck Close puts this into context when interviewed by Joe Fig for his book titled, Inside the Painter’s Studio

Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work. And the belief that things will grow out of the activity itself and that you will — through work — bump into other possibilities and kick open other doors that you would never have dreamt of if you were just sitting around looking for a great ‘art ida.’ And the belief that process, in a sense, is liberating and that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every day. Today, you know what you’ll do, you could be doing what you were doing yesterday, and tomorrow you are gonna do what you did today, and at least for a certain period of time you can just work. If you hang in there, you will get somewhere.


I never had painter’s block in my whole life.

So what’s your routine? What keeps you working? I’d love to glean from you any bits of wisdom you will share.

My Early Explorations in Photography

At an early age I was introduced to photography by my father. I can remember sitting (crawling around really) in the darkness of our spare bathroom where dad would work for hours making “color enlargements.” He also gifted me my first camera, a Nikon F something. I’d walk around pointing that thing everywhere, If only he’d given me film (oh the images I’d of made). I attribute these early days of exploring through the lens of an unloaded camera, with my eye for composition—I swear I see in squares and rectangles. Dad eventually reclaimed my Nikon, selling it for needed cash, and replacing it with my grandfather’s less contemporary Agfa Isolette, an inexpensive post-war German folding medium format camera built around 1954. I mention this because it was through this camera that I began to explore the qualities of photography that I am most drawn too.

I recall some of the first images I made with this new found tool. I’d point the camera at the moon and, without advancing the film, make a series of exposures, resulting in a negative filled with many moons.

What were some of your early explorations like with photography—any form of art actually?

The Sale of a Print

Currently on display is my Picture Spot Series at the Harrington Gallery in Pleasanton. Just the other day I was notified that one of my prints sold. As an artist, I often work on ideas in the solitude of my mind, playing out these ideas over and over again in attempt to bring to the tangible world, something physically emblematic of the concept. The sale of this work, any of my work, adds credibility to this process, making the effort more complete.

Work Envisioned—Work Realized

I recently earned the privilege of showing a new body of work at the Harrington Gallery in Pleasanton’s Firehouse Arts Center. The work is not the traditional style of work exhibited in this space. By this, I simply mean, it’s not the type of work that sells and it takes a certain mindset to ‘get it.’ There’s also a reference that might be lost on the wrong audience. Regardless of the audience, the work has been selected and is currently on display. My hope—any artist’s hope—is that the work makes an impact and resonates with a few of the viewers.

This work has been incubating for many years. I first saw one of these Kodak Picture Spot signs on a road trip with my family to Arizona. I think we were somewhere near the Grand Canyon. I can now recall seing more of them throughout my career. They’ve since disappeared—unless of course you’re in Disneyland where the signs prevail (but that’s a whole other story).

This work has taken years to formalize and come to fruition. I started shooting the images on a road trip Thea and I took through many of the Western United States’ National Parks back in 2010. Now as I spot new sites, I add to the series, always carrying the Kodak sign in my car wherever I go.

Today, the work lives as I envisioned it before a single image was captured or the mock Kodak sign was made in my studio. The work shows as I imagined it, as a “failed taxidermic effort to frame the magnificence of the land, stuff it’s glory, and paste it in the family photo album trophy as a surrogate to the experience of standing witness to the grandeur of the scene.”

Work Statement

In the world’s wild places, a photograph shot is a failed taxidermic effort to frame the magnificence of the land, stuff it’s glory, and paste it in the family photo album trophy as a surrogate to the experience of standing witness to the grandeur of the scene. No detail, composition or tonal range can truly capture the beauty of a place. While they may arrest time and pin down a memory, every attempt falls short of the sights, sounds, smells and awe of being physically present.

The photographer’s insatiable eye is emblematic of our culture’s voracious appetite to consume the land.  The National Parks are a reaction against this hunger and their purchase and preservation is an attempt to protect it from the hunters, ourselves. These National Park picture spots are signs indicating where one should stand, aim and click the shutter release of his camera, creating a gestural predatorial posture over the expanse of the land that for the moment has eluded it’s would be captor.

This ongoing body of work shows the inability of the photographer to apprehend the full range of light and splendor before the lens. My struggle to portray the landscape is the artists struggle, and the human struggle to communicate the mystery of existence.

~ John Trefethen

Giving Chris Brogan’s Advice a Shot

How to Get More Done: A Recipe
For the next 7 days (Tues­day through Mon­day next), I want you to try this rit­u­al as close to the details below as you can. Shoot for all seven days con­sis­tent­ly, as it doesn’t help if you start-and-stop. Ready?


    No screens or radio after 9pm.
    No phone first thing in the AM.
    No news or radio first thing, either.
    Right before bed, a notepad to jot nag­ging thoughts.
    The will­ing­ness to try this for 7 days in a row.


    At 9pm, have a glass of milk or almond milk or water, and a very small snack (prefer­ably a small hand­ful of nuts)
    Go to bed no later than 10pm
    Set your alarm for 6am (no snooze)
    Upon wak­ing, take the first 5 to 10 min­utes and just breathe deeply (it’s total­ly rea­son­able to do just five min­utes – it took me weeks to get up to 10 min­utes). If your fam­i­ly makes this hard, hide in the bath­room or a clos­et (not real­ly jok­ing).
    Get a light break­fast with­in the first 30 min­utes of wak­ing.
    If you have the time, get in a 15-20 minute brisk walk or work out. What­ev­er your morn­ing will allow. If you’ve got to get kids ready for school, that’s prac­ti­cal­ly a work­out.
    Write down (or note in what­ev­er way you want) the most impor­tant 3 tasks you want to accom­plish today, or at least the name of the projects you need to tack­le. Not every task. Not your huge to-do list. Just 3 that you need to deal with in some way.
    You have 3 min­utes (total!) to look for “fires” in your inbox. That’s all.
    Com­mute or get to work, what­ev­er. The rest of the day is yours to exe­cute on.

Confrontations: Artists and the Visual World

November 7 through December 15, 2012
Artists’ Reception: Thursday, November 8, 7:00 pm – 9:00 pm
The artists will be available during the reception for an informal “Artists’ Talk”.

This exhibit explores the contentious relationship between man and nature, specifically, our use and misuse of it and the detritus that results.  The marks and artifacts that remain have inspired a variety of unique responses in photography, painting and sculpture, creating a common thread among five artists whose work is otherwise diverse in approach and technique.

The exhibit includes paintings by Colorado artist Andrew Roberts-Gray (, photography by Daniel Kasser ( and John Trefethen ( and sculpture by Arthur Comings ( and Ralph Holker(

The Sound of Language

Train to Münich (Munchen Hbf) — Language is such an amazing thing. Put more accurately, language sounds beautiful when spoken and not understood. When the language being spoken is understood, what is being communicated becomes the focus. When not understood, one hears only the sounds created by the words being said.

I currently sit here on this train bound for Münich listening to German being spoken all around me. I pick up on words like vier, schlaffen, and büch but they mean nothing to me void of any context—they are just words.

An elderly couple just boarded the train and it sounded like the gentleman said, “but we can’t put things down so…” What he said is irrelevant except that if I am not mistaken, it was spoken in English. It’s interesting how this provides me some comfort and unity with a total stranger to whom I didn’t even speak to.

Why do you roast your own coffee?

That’s a good question. The number one reason I roast is because I enjoy it. But I am into this kind of stuff. I grow my own food too. I tie my own flies and make my own fishing lures as well. Just recently I started investigating what it would take to keep my own bees and I plan to raise my own chickens starting this summer. Not trying to frighten you away, just paint you a picture. It’s the kind of work I enjoy.

Now with that said the secondary and tertiary reasons are not far behind the primary reason. Those being, quality and price. There are very skilled roasters on the planet within shipping range whose coffee I greatly appreciate and, on occasion purchase for the joy of comparison.

About quality: great coffee starts with the harvest and drying process. Most, if not all, of this occurs in monetarily poor parts of our planet, as I’m sure you are well aware. It’s also important to note, coffee is the second most traded commodity in the world. For this reason, there is a long history of corruption. Without getting too much into the details, (see the book titled, The History of Coffee, and How it Transformed Our World) it’s this corruption and greed that drives the greatest percent of coffee sales in the world.

Farmers, by and large, are not paid full value for their product because consumers don’t respect coffee as a fine food. Coffee is equally, if not more, complex in flavor compared to wine. However, it, obviously, does not demand the price (thankfully). For this reason brokers drive a hard bargain, paying the bare minimum to farmers in a effort to maximize their gains (hence the greed and corruption). The down side to this equation is poor quality green coffee. To minimize the mustiness (off flavor) of the inferior beans, commercial roasters over bake their product, imparting more roast character than origin character. Ever wonder why French Roast is so widely known and touted as the preferred roast?

We can get more into roasting when you come over, but for now, coffee passes through two distinct phases during the roast cycle, first crack (sounds like pop corn popping) and second crack (sounds like sharp snaps, fire crackling). Anything beyond the second crack begins to impart roast character. The longer you roast into second crack, FullCity+, Vienna, French/burnt the less origin character is left in the coffee. Suffice it to say, with good quality green coffee I can roast my beans to “City” and enjoy all the flavors of the season in a given region while looking out at Mount Diablo before a ride. This apposed to slamming a sugar laden cup of “joe” because I need the caffeine.

About price: obviously, there’s a substantial savings to be had by roasting your own beans. If you order in bulk with a friend you can get the cost per pound of green coffee down to an average of $5.50 /lb. It took me less than six months to pay off my roaster. I go through about 10oz of green coffee per week. Depending on your consumption habits, you might pay off your machine in more or less time.

More important is the price paid to the grower. You’ve no doubt heard of the fair trade agreement made by sellers and buyers. Well, this, like the organic movement, has its roots in good intentions. Over time, greed has crept into this label. As a result, there is less fair trade going on than one would expect. Sweet Maria’s believes whole heartily in paying farmers a fair price for their goods. As a result, they have established their own label for “fair trade” calling it FarmGate. Tom goes straight to the farmer, paying him or her full wholesale value for their goods. For this reason, my cost of green beans is much higher than what many others might pay for green coffee. I am happy to pay it simply because I can.

I purchased my machine three years ago and have never looked back. I have personal communication with Tom at Sweet Maria’s and Joe Behm, the manufacturer of the coffee roasting machine. Not because we are personal friends, but because they are both small business owners and remain a part of their company and therefore their customer relationships.

Sweet Maria’s caries the Behmor. Last I checked, if purchased through them, you also receive a sample pack of nine varieties of coffee (hence the “sweet” deal aspect in the name).

As for coffee extraction preference, yes I prefer espresso for its rich creamy boldness. But also use full-emersion methods like French Press and The Clever Coffee Dripper to brew my coffee too.

It’s a Matter of Scale and Perspective

Sometimes just changing ones perspective is all it takes. Laying down on the ground and shooting up towards your subject will render the ordinary in an extraordinary way. Instead of shooting from eye level, or down at your subject, try shooting up. You’ll find that this worm’s eye view can add strength to your portraits, posing them in a tall and slender fashion.

In this image, I am shooting from the base of a hill as the crowds pass by my camera. I sat and waited for the right moment, when the kites, the crowds and the clouds were in alignment.