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 am less interested in photography as document and more interested in it as a tool to create and render form, shape, and through it, new discoveries and relationships. I can remember pointing that simple Isolette upwards at the moon, clicking the shutter without ever winding the film (Isolettes required one to manually advance the film between shoots making it very easy to make double exposures). Knowing that I only had 12 frames to work with, I would load these frames up with multiple exposures. This process revealed to me these wonderful and hidden relationships between people interacting within a single space over the course of several hours. The results were these wonderful ghost-like characters overlapping one another without ever actually exchanging a single word. This process illuminated the other-world possibilities offered through the medium of photography and has kept me going ever since.

Why photography?

I am a photographer because I love the immediacy of the medium. Besides, I am too impatience to express my ideas through other art forms. Photography enables me to put my thoughts down on paper. I am drawn to its complex nature. It offers something that no other art medium can, the dual function of having both connotative and denotative qualities. A photograph, in its natural form, is absolutely analogical, meaning it functions free from any adherence to a code (or language system). Still, there are recordings of “reality” within any given image; but the elements of reality that make it into the photograph are subject to my discretion. Therefore my aim is inherently present in every image I make. The use of light, perspective, composition, timing and selection are all subject to my filter. It is these two properties that fascinate me about photography and keep me pushing the boundaries of what defines me as a photographer.

What is the role of photography in your life?

Photography serves as a means to an end. As I’ve stated, the camera is a tool that helps me interpret the ideas that are in my head. As Edward Weston wrote in one of his Daybook entries, “words can sure make a mess of thoughts can’t they.” Well, photography is a way of translating my thoughts into a tactile object, posing questions whose answers are dependent on what the viewer “sees.” Photography allows me to explore the world of creativity in a way that allows me to learn from working. By setting out with a loose idea, I am allowed to learn by working. Essentially, working begets working and photography is the tool I use to formalize my ideas.

Formal Education

M.F.A. (b. 1975) John studied design and photography at Humboldt State University and received his graduate degree in 2005 from San Jose State University School of Art & Design with a thesis in the relationship between the connoted and denoted meaning of image. Trefethen has served as a guest lecturer at San Jose State University and Humboldt State University. He has also been a panel chair at the Society for Photographic Education, where he discussed a collaborative work titled, “Guarding the Garbage: an alternative approach to dealing with the endless accumulation of the worlds waste.” He has been working within the field of design and photography for 16 years and currently serves as faculty at Academy of Art University in San Francisco where he teaches both MFA and BFA students about photography.

Who are your artistic influences?

I am influenced by the work of Susan Freidman and Willy Middlebrook for their unconventional approach to photography and for teaching me to make photography work for me; molding the medium to my vision. Don Anton for teaching me the importance of discovering my voice and letting personal experience inform the work I produce. Steven King and Edward Weston for their routine-driven work ethic and the models of hard work they promote. And Roland Barthes for his profound knowledge regarding linguistics, specifically his work related to text and image.

How do you describe “home”?

I would describe home as being similar to a base camp, a retreat of sorts; a quite place to recharge my batteries, read, write and settle into my daily routine. While I do live a hustled lifestyle, racing road bikes, teaching photography and running a design studio, routine is of utmost importance to me. Without it, I cannot work as hard and consistently, nor can I focus with enough concentration as to allow new discoveries to be realized.

You see, it’s through the process of working on photography all the time that new ideas are born. The little mistakes that happen along the way inform me, they teach me about the next step whatever that may be. Without routine, these events just don’t take place and my home provides that.

Where can we find your work?

In private collections around the country, LensWork and Online.


415.404.0365. Or, if you prefer, you can send me an email.