Smartphone Photos Take Us on a Celestial Journey

Two artists use their cameras to reveal the mystical qualities of even the most common matter—from asphalt to dust clouds to rays of light.

Through the lens of a camera, bird droppings can turn into a universe and a puddle can become a golden grail, at least according to photographers Katrin Koenning and Sarker Protick.

Using their mobile phones, the two artists regularly document the ordinary things that catch their eye—tree branches, exit signs, and even bird poop—in enchanting ways that elevate the mundane to the metaphysical. Oftentimes, the original subject is transformed beyond recognition into a glowing, cosmic display. Viewers are left feeling like they’ve journeyed through time and wondering “What is that?” “Where am I?” and “How can I get here again?”

Koenning and Protick practice photography independently and thousands of miles apart from one another—Koenning is based in Australia and Protick in Bangladesh—but they admired one another’s images from afar.

It turns out someone else was watching their work too.

LISTEN: Photographer Sarker Protick composed "Letters," the musical piece embedded above, in B harmonic minor as part of the body of work that became the photo book Astres Noirs.

Cécile Poimboeuf-Koizumi and Vasantha Yogananthan from the French publisher Chose Commune (which translates to ‘Common Thing’) had been following Koenig and Protick on Instagram. They saw such a resonance between the two artists’ photographs that they wondered if there was room for a collaboration—a new body of work where the finished piece, the whole, could be greater than the sum of its individual parts.

“One day it just hit us: why not make a book with both their works?” said Poimboeuf-Koizumi and Yogananthan. “We asked them to send us all their files, which was quite a lot as it's always ongoing. The first thing we did was to completely immerse into their world. We were amazed by how the commonplace just feels “out there,” as if we were on another planet, traveling from darkness into light.”

So they tried it. To make Astres Noirs, the editors selected images from Koenning and Protick’s various projects, working from intuition rather than trying to tell a linear story. Protick describes the project as a conversation that uses the language of images. “As if sending a letter, but without words, hoping that the receiver will still be able to read what is in it,” he says.

For Koenning, this book is a dialogue that can be interpreted in many ways. It “could be a friction, a journey, a feeling, the idea of something lost or something found—a mystery. The book has this rhythm of voyage. The images drift in and out of each other, and the viewer will only definitively know whose work is whose by studying the last pages (a sort of visual index that tells you what work belongs to whom).”

In some ways, looking at Astres Noirs really is a journey through time and space. The artists and their editors have created a new world from images made across the globe and over the course of years, and they’ve encapsulated them into this concrete book. Without leaving our seats, we’re able to immerse ourselves in a mystical interpretation of the planet we also call home. And hopefully, when we look up from the book, we’re left a little more in awe at the possibility of finding transcendence in our own surroundings.

Information about purchasing Astres Noirs can be found here.

Katrin Koenning is a photographer based in Melbourne, Australia. See more of her work on her website and follow her on Instagram.

Sarker Protick is a photographer based in Dhaka, Bangladesh. See more of his work on his website and follow him on Instagram.

Becky Harlan is an associate photo editor at National Geographic. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.