Eugene Tumusiime creates photos straight from a cyberpunk daydream
“Over time, I gradually became invested in the idea of reimagining London as a cyberpunk metropolis,” award-winning photographer Eugene Tumusiime tells me. When he started filming in London, he was enchanted by the neon lights of Piccadilly Circus. He has followed in the footsteps of generations of street photographers, tracking the defining moments shared between taxi drivers, bus passengers and pedestrians in Soho and Chinatown.
Tumusiime still frequents these places, but he has also come to know another side of the city, the one that hides below the surface and only emerges after dark. His series neon nightsyears of preparation, took him through the nooks and crannies of London, where he discovered hidden gems and vistas that sent shivers down his spine.
He recalls: “I started heading to lesser-known sights, walking up and down the Thames, looking for rooftop gardens as vantage points, photographing people walking along bridges with skyscrapers -sky in the background, filming in the subway – everything that allowed me to take advantage of verticality and scale.
neon nights captures the London of today, but it also provides a snapshot of a possible future, one where the high tech of tomorrow collides with the grit of real life at night in the city. Tumusiime’s photographs are to London what Blade Runner is to Los Angeles, or what Akira is to Tokyo. We asked the artist to tell us more about the ongoing series.
The essential equipment for Eugene Tumusiime
Photographer: How did you start as a photographer? What attracted you to the medium?
Eugene Tumusiime: I was studying Media BTEC in sixth grade in 2016, falling in love with Photoshop when I found out what RAW files are. A file format that specifically gives me more control over the image? And my phone can shoot them? ! Please. I started walking for fun through the forests and along the canals.
Photographer: How and when neon nights the series begins?
Eugene Tumusiime: I was living in Reading at the time, a little over a year after I started photography, and I was enamored with the work of Liam Wong, a former Ubisoft art director who was known for doing street photography cyberpunk in Tokyo.
I was photographing architecture at the time because I loved combining clean compositions with very saturated colors theory. Getting the occasional photo of a weird person as a bonus was nice, but Liam’s work ticked all the boxes I could want. Cinematographic. Geometric. Bright yet well-balanced color palettes. I was hypnotized by his work in late 2015, but two years later, after spending a lot of time filming in forests, canals and commercial estates, my thoughts were somewhere along the lines of “Cool, I can do this”.
As for why I shoot in London, it’s good to have so much modern architecture and verticality, but ultimately, I just live here. I would shoot at night anywhere. I love him too much.
Phoblographer: How do you find these neon nightscapes? Do you research the locations online first or go exploring and see what you find?
Eugene Tumusiime: My location scouting process usually happens in two ways; Either I look up”[location] night” on Google Images, or while taking a train to central London, I pick the name of the station that sounds coolest to me and get off there. Then I walk around for hours and see what I can find. As long as I can find a subway station, there’s no place too far for me.
Phoblographer: What does a night of filming look like for you? What conditions are you looking for and what are the ideal times?
Eugene Tumusiime: I live on the outskirts of Greater London so I religiously watch for the onset of blue hour throughout the year. The second the sky starts to turn blue, I walk out of the house. Whether it was 4:00 p.m. or 9:00 p.m., I left and returned at midnight.
It’s the most fun to shoot right after the rain. I haven’t quite mastered the art of shooting with an umbrella, so it’s a lot easier for me. The streets shine, I can add a lot more color to the image, and I can enjoy the reflections in the puddles.
If I could pull an all-nighter every time, I would. It’s an adventure every time, and I can always find a new alley or a new viewpoint.
Photographer: How is it to explore the city at night?
Eugene Tumusiime: Since I live so far from Central, I don’t usually explore this area during the day, so honestly, I don’t have much to compare. That being said, I love catching people working off-license, the food trucks, the bus drivers, the people hanging out at the Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain – the people who keep the town alive. There’s a certain base of noise I hear in the city that I don’t get where I live. Even with headphones. High-density traffic, boring music playing from big speakers, people doing nitrous — those things keep me grounded.
Photographer : You are also a director of photography. Did films or film scenes influence this body of work?
Eugene Tumusiime: I watched Akira for the first time in 2017. There’s a gunshot during the opening motorcycle chase in which Kaneda speeds through the city. The camera slowly tilts and reveals the metropolis of Neo-Tokyo, with skyscrapers stacked one behind the other, each taller than the next. Since then, I’ve been searching for that sense of scale.
Too, Taxi driver is beautiful. Two minutes after my first viewing, I blurted out, “Oh yeah! The streets can simply be green!
Photographer: What are the technical challenges of shooting at night?
Eugene Tumusiime: If you’re using a zoom lens on a Canon 1300D, you’re kind of accepting that you usually shoot at ISO 1600 a lot at night. Getting a decent exposure with a lower ISO really depends on your ability to stabilize the camera. I keep it pushed against poles, rails, etc. just to be able to keep the shutter speed below 1/30th for a steady shot. It works when it works.
Photographer: Tell us about those amazing colors. Do you modify them in post-production?
Eugene Tumusiime: I note in Adobe Bridge; I couldn’t bother doing collections or backups in Lightroom when I first started filming, but the toolset is the same, so there you have it.
I start with the color temperature adjustments to see what I can get from different light sources, then I use camera calibration tools to bring some harmony to the color palette. This creates a good foundation that I can build on with hue/saturation sliders and local adjustments. I’ll often end up with something completely different, but after spending some time figuring out all the directions I can push an image in, that’s a valid kind of difference. Or I find out in five minutes. Or two years. It varies.
I must point out that colors have no inherent meaning and their potential for visual stimulation really depends on your ability to balance a palette before I say this:
true colors I choose are influenced by a lot of cyberpunk fiction. The Matrix, Blade Runner, Akira, Ghost In The Shell, etc. make a good style guide for the flavor of dystopia I want to convey. Blue as a primary color simply means “This is the future”, while red is somewhere along the lines of mega corporations charging people to breathe. That being said, the real fun is creating such a complex color palette as I can, rather than any kind of social commentary. I just have a lot of things to draw inspiration from.
Photographer: How did the project evolve during the confinements?
Eugene Tumusiime: When the Christmas lockdown started, it was strange filming empty streets. I liked going out and an update to Camera RAW added a hue slider so I could create different color palettes, but I wasn’t punctuating my shots with a person as the focal point of a composition. The legacy of street photography that I drew on no longer meant much. I just had to be okay with that.
Over time, it became somewhat liberating. At first I focused on determining the focal point of a shot, but eventually I was happy to do tapestries of intricate color palettes. I always am when it comes to “empty” shots.
Phoblographer: What is your most powerful memory of your time creating this body of work?
Eugene Tumusiime: In the 1940s and 1950s, London-based architects began proposing Highwalks: public pathways built above street level. They would make it easier for pedestrians to avoid traffic and would be wonderful sites for public gardens. Only a tenth of those planned were built.
Found one by complete accident in 2018. Got off at a train station, noticed there was a separate exit above street level and kept walking. I ended up being greeted with a sweeping view of skyscrapers that housed luxury apartments, office buildings, coworking spaces, and restaurants. Some buildings had LEDs on the side. Some had public gardens.
To date, very little has ever summed up my feelings about the incessant urban development as a photographer and a civilian. I could take pictures of tiny pedestrians at street level while also feeling so insignificant against the ever-expanding cityscape. London is growing every week.
All photos are by Eugene Tumusiime. Used with permission. To learn more about Eugene Tumusiime, do not hesitate to visit his site. Follow us on Instagram at etvisualson Behance at etvisualson you can buy his prints here.
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