Elena Helfrecht, Plexus

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by Void Publishing (here). Open spine hardcover with French folds, 24×30 cm, 104 pages. with 68 duotone reproductions and 8 hidden images. Includes a short story by Camilla Grudova. In an edition of 1000 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Like many of us who discover a renewed interest in family history when a beloved elder or relative passes away, the death of the German photographer Elena Helfrecht’s grandmother was a catalyst for her to begin a photographic investigation of her own family’s life and legacy. And so she ventured out to the family’s estate in Bavaria and began to poke around the quietly empty rooms, soon discovering a number of archival photographs that provided fleeting glimpses of the house’s past. While she was there, she made her own images inside the house and then later paired them with some of the family photos, building up a layered visual narrative, which takes photobook form in Plexus.

This relatively bland description might apply to any number of dozens of photobooks published in recent years, where artists go in search of themselves by digging into their own family histories and then create photobooks that thoughtfully mix the imagery from past and present. But Plexus isn’t anything like those other books. Helfrecht’s photobook is more like a ghost story, where strange and sometimes disturbing images emerge from dark shadows, alluding to haunting family traumas that lie just underneath the surface. It’s the opposite of a self-conscious inward looking diaristic journey – it’s a delectably sinister almost horror story, told with just enough photographic ambiguity to encourage even darker imaginings.

I suppose that the black embossed cover of Plexus, with its elusive image of twisting snakes, might have been the first clue that this book wasn’t going to be a pluckily earnest self examination with a happy ending. And while those snakes will indeed return later in various forms, the first photograph inside provides its own surreal jolt – strange egg-like sacs or polyps growing on a dead twisted vine, the picture made with a blast of flash that makes the cluster of growths look all the more sickly and unsettling. It’s a picture that immediately signals that we’re in the realm of the diseased or the uncanny.

As the pages turn, Helfrecht offers us a series of vaguely menacing images: a dense pile of flaky snake skins, feathers, and eggs (begging the question, where are the snakes?); a black bird turned upside down somehow, its beak holding a seed near a scarred scratch in the dirt floor; a head-shaped indent in a pillow, but no body; some drippy stalactites growing down from the ceiling, with the image turned sideways so they look like they are coming out of the side of the wall; and loose wooden floorboards revealing a deep darkness underneath. What might have taken place in this seemingly haunted or at least spooky old house remains unstated, but with this ominous opener, Helfrecht has grabbed us by the throat.

The photographs in Plexus have been printed on French folded pages, so the images are on either side, with a blank interior space underneath the folds. But then a closer look at the floorboard image reveals that there is actually a small image hidden inside the fold, like a whispered secret. It turns out that there are half a dozen or so of these hidden pictures sprinkled throughout the book, many showing us an archival family image of something Helfrecht has also photographed; in this case, the hidden image features a mother on horseback holding a baby, with the visible image on the following exterior page capturing the silky sheen of a horse skin. This provides an eerie collapsing of time, where a buried memory seeps up from the depths of the book that then connects to Helfrecht’s narrative. The book’s only text, a surreal short story about a house with strange growths inside by Camilla Grudova, is also found within these French folded pages, essentially forcing us to cut it out (by slashing the edges of the paper), just like the vigilant work of the surgeon in the story.

The ghostly mood continues through another series of images – a chick embryo on the floorboards, a nest of hair, some ropes hanging on a pole, a moth in a cup of coffee, a view of an old kitchen (with another hidden image of an older woman in the kitchen underneath, presumably the grandmother at the stove), a pair of disembodied chicken feet seemingly standing up, and most puzzlingly, a set of wooden chairs seemingly hovering near the roof of the attic (which turn out, I think, to be hung there in storage, but the image is presented upside down). Around every corner, Helfrecht seems to find yet another mystery, the aggregation of these discoveries amplifying the charged atmosphere even further.

After this run of photographs, Helfrecht creates an interlude of sorts, with a series of horizontal archival images printed full bleed, in a few cases moving across page turns. Here we see some family history brought to life, but with a few quietly threatening undertones. The small series starts easily enough, with images of a young girl walking along a fallen tree in the deep forest, a mother holding two young children while sitting on a bench, a view of the house with its wooden fence, and a woman feeding chickens. But then things get a bit more ominous, particularly with the backdrop of 20th century German history never far from our minds – a blurred image of what looks like a train pulling boxcars rolls by; a picture of some young boys in lederhosen stand together, one wearing a military helmet and another with a knife; and finally a wide image of a horse pulling a decorated wagon, with plenty of festive floral garlands but also a few Nazi swastika flags and armbands. These images point to a more troubling past for the house and its inhabitants, the ghosts still lingering in the dust.

But Helfrecht and the house still have plenty more surprises up their sleeves. A disembodied hand lies between fresh white linens in the linen closet. A massive wooden mirror in the empty attic (like the kind that offers a portal to other worlds in fables and fairy tales) stands ready for magical transport. And then the snakes make their return, three of them this time (one an albino no less) twisting around the roof of a toy house, perhaps in a symbolic recreation of the dangerous histories that suffocate the artist’s own family house. More ominous weirdness then follows: a spider scuttling out from a hole in the wall, a strange round light in the attic, some blind chicks, a tangle of rats (in another hidden image), a furnace overflowing with grim ash, a plate full of chicken heads, and an open child’s coffin (with two hidden images of children playing with a miniature kitchen hiding underneath). The book ends with another disturbingly unidentifiable miasma of what looks like fleshy egg yolks and at least one egg fetus, leaving us with the sense that the rot here runs deep.

While there are likely some “if the walls could talk” kind of cliches to be trotted out here, what I found most engaging about this photobook is how much it cuts against our expectations. This is a genuinely bewildering and unsettling photobook, in the best possible way, and it never offers any explicit answers about the family histories that may or may not exist. In short, it doesn’t opt for being literal or obvious, but instead tries something more risky and atmospheric, which largely succeeds. As the history of great horror films has so ably taught us, the scariest things are the ones we can’t actually see; in Plexus, Helfrecht seems to have internalized this important lesson, giving us vividly crafted clues to the gruesomeness that hides off camera, but never actually resolving the tension.

Collector’s POV: Elena Helfrecht does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via her webpage (linked in the sidebar).

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