In 2009, cousins Romain Alvery and Antoine Levi decided to make an overland trip from Paris to Tokyo, exploring their mutual passions for photography and videography along the way. One morning, the duo woke up in a small, square hotel room in Pushkar, India, and saw moving colors and shadows on the ceiling. A tiny pinhole in the shutters was letting in just enough light to the turn their hotel room into an accidental camera obscura.
Sometimes, serendipity is more responsible for a great art project than anything else. Inadvertently, that magical, early-morning optical phenomenon has inspired Alvery and Levi to create the Stenop.es series. Inspired by the work of Aberlado Morell, the project aims to capture through photography and time-lapse videos the intimate relation between the interiors and exteriors of Parisian apartments by transforming their walls into transparent, topsy-turvy skins.
In creating the series, Alvery and Levi follow the same camera obscura principles that have been in use since the days of Aristotle. The philosopher realized that "sunlight travelling through small openings between the leaves of a tree, the holes of a sieve, the openings wickerwork, and even interlaced fingers will create circular patches of light on the ground." This simple observation eventually led to the camera. The camera obscura is simple to create in any dark enclosed space, but has a couple of trade-offs: The image is flipped 180 degrees upside down, and there is an inverse relationship between a camera obscura's clarity and its brightness.
"What we're trying to make is a visual cartography," Levi tells Co.Design. "We'd like to show people the architectural diversity, not just inside, but outside of the apartments and flats in which Parisians live."
By using camera obscuras, Alvery and Levi's primary design challenge was finding apartments that made for interesting camera obscuras, then getting them dark enough and positioning a hole to the world outside to let the light enter the room in the best way. "The Camera Obscura is a really interesting technique that has existed since ancient times, yet can still create an amazing experience today," says Levi. "It's a real media that can be explored in interesting ways."
The goal of the series is to show the relationship between the interior of an apartment and the larger world in which it and its inhabitants live. "We're trying to show how people live in Paris, both in regards to the outer worlds and the inner worlds they have created for themselves," Levi explains. "The inner world of an apartment is important, because it shows off the more intimate relationship a person might have with his environment. But the outside is maybe more important because it's the view from the window they see every day. It's where the rest of us are breathing."
The results are striking: the quiet inner world of an empty apartment, walls throbbing with all the light, color, and detail of an upside-down world locked outside. Not a bad project to come out of a tiny hole in the shutter of an Indian hotel, or a 2,500-year-old optical device, for that matter.
More of Alvery and Levi's camera obscuras can be seen on the official Stenop.es website.