Robin Johnston


Camusdarach Camusdarach God's Eye God’s Eye

Robin Johnston is a Scottish urban photographer and video producer based in Glasgow, Scotland UK with a large portfolio of work. Most of his photographs concentrate on strong contrasts in light, texture and form, making reference to Film Noir, photographers like Brassai and Bill Brandt and painters such as Giorgio de Chirico.

His 2011 video, Death of Light in Symmetry, is currently traveling with Water, Water Everywhere: Paean to a Vanishing Resource .

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Reflective Evaluation

Pursuing graphic design as a possible career change had not occurred to me before last year. This has also been the first time I have kept a blog.

I felt my practical work needed to have a hand-drawn element, without relying too much on Photoshop or InDesign, and I was intrigued by the idea of producing a contemporary book in the ‘Illuminated’ style, as this had been my initial direction of research.  My tutor agreed that this could be a suitable project, however I had not drawn anything in some years.

My research used the keyword ‘illuminated’. This led to a varied range of approaches, my first being an introduction to the extraordinary world of illuminated manuscripts and the rich heritage they represent. I have always been interested in history so this seemed a rich vein for research. However most of the academic sources could be long winded and dry, not great source material for an in depth critical analysis. I then looked around for something different and found Edit Toth’s article on Bauhaus mainstay Laszlo Moholy-Nagy’s ‘Light Prop’. I had recently seen this sculpture in person while on a trip to Berlin and was intrigued. I found my first critical analysis of a text in 15 years more than a small challenge.

The stringent thinking process of both making sense of a text and reinterpreting it myself proved to be a very rewarding process, and I gained a greater insight into the cultural and social impact of the Bauhaus than ever before. I was also intrigued more by the idea of the ‘Light Prop’ and found my research taking me into the subject of lumia, or light artworks.

The illuminated manuscript idea was one that I stuck to for my practical work however, with a number of historical references coming through in the work. Artists I mention, such as Frances MacDonald, in particular were influenced by two of the subjects I mention in my blog, both illuminated manuscripts and Japanese ukiyo-e art.

As a photography student moving into graphic design work I have noticed a great deal of crossover aspects in the too disciplines. The use of lighting in particular struck me as an intriguing angle to explore in the blog, understanding how human beings make sense of designs and images in general through an innate understanding of how light can provide form. I outline in the blog how both photographic and video explorations of these shifting attributes of light can also inspire fresh ideas in design. This thought process comes full circle to the ‘Light Prop’ and the generation of abstract moving images.

Overall this has been a very interesting journey. However I feel I have fallen short in respect of the overall conclusions of my work. I do think these will be ongoing subjects for research into art in the future and these are subjects I am passionate about. I am not sure that I have accumulated enough research however to fulfill the brief for this module.

Designing Light

Part of my ongoing research into light artworks in design, with the key word ‘illumination’, is exploring the many ways light can be manipulated into forms of moving and shifting sculpture. The design of  light can parallel musical expression and create new ways of seeing that can evoke a powerful emotional response in an audience.

Turrell The Way Of Colour 2

James Turrell : The Way Of Colour 2

Filmmakers such as Stan Brakhage and installation artists like James Turrell show how light can be shaped and manipulated with diverse materials to thought-provoking effect.

This is something I would like to explore in the future. The random patterns created by manipulating light can create surprising and unusual images with different materials and surfaces. This can inspire fresh ideas, thought processes and visual opportunities for design work.

I have included some of my own examples from my Youtube channel:

Lovely Ugly : The legacy of concrete in Brutalist architecture

Some of my earliest memories as a child are of the concrete-dominated streets of the Sottish new town of Cumbernauld. Memories of going to see Star Wars at the age of 3-4 in what seemed to me to be a subterranean concrete dungeon, has left a lasting impression on my imagination. As did visits to see my Grandmother in her top floor flat in the Nitshill high rise, with its graffiti, dingy lifts, dark halls and decrepit shops. At the time it felt like a damp and ugly labyrinth.


Cumbernauld Town Centre

These vivid memories have also played a part in my choice of subject matter when it came to producing images. Glasgow was not short of concrete underpasses and high rise building. The grey drab weather-soaked surfaces were both ugly and strangely beautiful in a certain light, both at night and during the day.

This was a while before I learned of the post-war legacy of brutalist architecture as a world movement for rehousing the masses, heavily influenced by Utopian modernist design ideas (again borrowing heavily from the Bauhaus).

It was a form of architecture that Glasgow embraced with open arms, and has been as controversial here as elsewhere. Since then the city has been doing its best to forget the post war period, with the demolition of prominent city landmarks like the Red Road and Whitevale flats.

There has been recently a change of heart however with the coming renovation of the crumbling masterpiece St. Peter’s seminary in Cardross, on the outskirts of Glasgow.

St. Peters Seminary, Cardross

St. Peter’s Seminary, Cardross

Recently I photographed some interiors of the Whitevale flats, and the small cramped rooms and stairwells felt more like a vertical prison than a residential building. This combined with recent visits back to Cumbernauld reminded me how lucky I was to have escaped at an early age.

Still, the surfaces and shapes of concrete architecture still evoke a strong emotional response in me. Buildings like the National Theatre in London, the Ballardian atmospherics of underpasses and the creativity of designers like Le Corbusier still hold a fascination for me. They still feel like the landscapes of nostalgic science-fiction.

These are often lonely spaces, blank surfaces and alienating environments, yet many of these buildings have endured and have generated a global appreciation for their inventive approach to design.

Such ultra-modernist forms are endlessly fascinating to me, and no doubt I can still trace this back to early childhood memories. Memories that will no doubt help shape any design work I am involved with from now on.

Ukiyo-e and the influence of Japan.

One of the many influences that I had mentioned in my application for this MA was of the art of Japanese printmaking artists such as Katsushika Hokusai and Andō Hiroshige – of the ukiyo-e style of Japanese woodblock printmaking.

These Japanese artists had a strong influence on western art in general, and more specifically in what became the Anglo-Japanese style of the 19th century, after Japan began to open up to the rest of the world.

Japanese traditional art’s sense of minimalism in depictions of nature and village life, and the  subtle use of light and colour would go on to influence more modern movements in the late 19th Century and into the 20th Century like Art Nouveau.

Seeing these works in books and museums also had a subconscious influence on my own photography – which I’ve mentioned on this blog before – it also influences the style of graphic design I want to produce – a style echoing an atmospheric approach to  depictions of the natural world and of daily life in the city.

The defined lines and vivid shades of colour of these styles of printmaking also appealed to me, as they reminded me of favourite comic book artists like Hergé. Later on I also became aware of the Japanese influence on artists based in Europe and America such as James Whistler whose minimal nocturne paintings have also been a favourite of my own for some time.

Whistler - Nocturne in Blue and Gold Old Battersea Bridge

Whistler – Nocturne in Blue and Gold Old Battersea Bridge

The use of light in Whistlers paintings especially appeals to me, with its subtle tones and shades, and this is echoed in the sensitivity to the subtleties of the landscape and simplicity of form shown in early 19th Century Japanese art.

There were many artists of this time who were influenced by these prints including Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Charles Rennie MacIntosh and Frances and Margaret MacDonald (who I have mentioned earlier in this blog).

This wabi-sabi style approach to minimalism and simplicity of form can be seen in many Japanese practitioners in contemporary art disciplines. Designers like Ikko Tanaka and Yusaku Kamekura, and photographers Yamamoto Masao and Shomei Tomatsu are continuing to develop and reflect an aesthetic style going back hundreds of years.

Having had a long fascination with Japan and its history, these are styles of design and image making I find highly appealing and I hope to incorporate all these disciplined and evocative influences into my own visual design projects in the near future.

New sketches for the Martian Chronicles Illuminated Book.

I have been working on sketches for a new panel for my ‘Illuminated’ project, based around scenes from the book ‘The Martian Chronicles’.

Here the scene taken from the book depicts ancient Martian sand-ships appearing to a human colonist. The ships proceed to chase the Earth man across the alien planet’s desert landscape.

The ship shown here  is seen from the front. The design was inspired by a combination of visual references. A treble clef, a sea shell and the curving hull of a Viking long-ship all combine to provide a feel of grace, mystery and hopefully also a sense of the ship’s alien origin.

I hope to develop this design into a book cover or an image for my design portfolio.