The PhotoBook Journal

December 2, 2009

Arnoud Bakker – Atropa bella donna


Copyright Arnoud Bakker, 2009, courtesy Stichting Fotografie Noorderlicht

To be in love, or perhaps in lust, is to experience a kind of narcosis and paralysis, with an inability to focus, while the heart rate becomes erratic. There are other symptoms of which there may be a lack of awareness in the moment; dilated pupils, blurred vision, loss of balance & staggering, slurred speech, confusion, hallucinations and delirium.

Coincidently, these effects are the same for ingesting parts of the very toxic deadly nightshade, a perennial plant found in Europe, especially the species Atropa belladonna. The Atropa belladonna name is derived from Greek and Italian, an admonition, meaning “do not betray a beautiful lady”, a very wise piece of wisdom.

Han Schoonhaven in his essay for Arnoud Bakker’s Atropa bella donna writes:

“Love is a neurosis, a chemical reaction to sustain human kind, but what a fine madness it is! Paul Van Ostaijen wrote about Feasts of Fear and Pain, but I cannot imagine having gone though my youth without the fear, pain, euphoria and little death that are inevitably connected with love.”

The subject of Bakker’s book recently published by Noorderlicht, both directly and indirectly, is the portrait of women, attempting to reveal their inner natural beauty. The photographer also attempts to not betray them in the process, revealing a complex interrelationship of photographer and subject. Implied in Schoonhaven’s essay, Bakker is attempting to “create golden girls on paper… and that girls love cameras and they want to be seen…potentially by as many people as possible….and a woman who is prepared to be recorded, presents herself”.

Bakker is also interested in bringing other types of photographic experimentation into this process working with a tradition large format camera both with Polaroid positive/negative film/print and placing long spans of 35mm negative film across the film holder or using stereo-graphic equipment. There is additional element of serendipity to this analog process, as the outcome is not fully realized until later in the darkroom.

As the women interacts with the photographer’s process, an unknown element is the extent of her revelations, both her surface contours and her internal beauty. This is a complex relationship, one that Bakker likens to the complexity and unpredictability of nature itself. I find that portraits that can capture internal beauty are elusive, a factor that is as much as in the eye of the beholder as the person in front of the lens. The photographer is the medium, choosing the environmental conditions and having sensitivity as to when to make the exposure, and what is extracted in the ensuing image. Another form of natural chemistry that is difficult to analyze and quantify, only approximate and qualify at best.

A question of this body of work, does it indeed create the Atropa belladonna’s bizarre delirium and hallucinations?  I don’t think that these images are necessarily “bizarre”, but they are creative with some unusual book layouts, perhaps may not create a delirium, but might create some hallucinations. Like the berries from the plant, these images pose a danger as they are attractive and slightly sweet. There is rawness and coyness, women explicitly revealing themselves in abandon like a wild night-club stripper, or demurely like a blushing first encounter. I found that these photographs illustrate the potential emotional swings of a romantic encounter, aggression and passiveness.

We do not know if a woman who is photographed half dressed is the in the process of undressing, re-dressing or pausing in mid-thought. Photographed partially undressed, her face cloaked and hidden form view, but her form and contours visible. She temporarily exists between the states of fully revealing and disguising herself, to want to show herself, but yet not be identifiable, a world of fantasy and mystery, lewdness and modesty, a state of narcosis and paralysis.

For the woman being photographed, knowing what is reveled in the studio may become publicly available for all to indulge might be part of the fantasy. Wondering at the moment of the click of the shutter, if eventually someone will pause at this intimate and personal image? And what might the reader be thinking as they pause to study this image? Can they know and understand the thoughts, dreams, passion, nightmares and hopes for the future? That is part of the mystery, for the women who reveal themselves, the photographer who photographs and eventually for us to try to decipher.

Some of the resulting images are sharply focused and well defined, while others are soft and blurry impressions, and many are somewhere in between. The later creates an impression of a hallucination, dreamlike and having a lack of being able to focus clearly, a disruption to the cognitive capacities

This is a relatively small case-bound book, consistent in size with most of the books published by Noorderlicht. The book binding does not allow the book to lay-flat, which can be a nuisance if you want to allow a pair of images to be on display over a longer duration. The essay is by Han Schoonhavon with the text in Dutch and English, and the book is printed in Groningen, The Netherlands.

Best regards, Douglas Stockdale







  1. […] Link: Arnoud Bakker – Atropa bella donna « The PhotoBook […]

    Pingback by Arnoud Bakker – Atropa bella donna « The PhotoBook | The Click — December 2, 2009 @ 1:25 pm

  2. the work is very interesting, deep and dark.but the sequency of the images in the book is very far than the works of the site…

    Comment by valentino barachini — February 14, 2010 @ 7:02 am

  3. One of the my challenages is try to select interior images that are representational of the photobook. So I publish a curated glimpse as to what remains within the book, as well as providing some enlightment & illustrative for the review.

    Comment by Doug Stockdale — February 14, 2010 @ 3:52 pm

  4. Dearest Douglas,

    i quote (correctly, cause i wrote it): ‘Paul van Ostaijen wrote about Feasts of Fear and Pain, but I cannot imagine having gone through my youth without the fear, pain, euphoria and little death that are inevitably connected with love.’

    take care
    good luck
    to you
    and your blog,

    Comment by Han Schoonhoven — February 23, 2011 @ 12:12 am

  5. Han, thank you for noticing my two typos, which regretfully had alterned the context of my review in a way that I had not intended. The corrections have now been made. Again, thank you!

    Comment by Doug Stockdale — February 23, 2011 @ 4:28 am

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