Book tip: Plexus

January 30, 2024

In search of ghosts and secrets of the past: German photographer Elena Helfrecht explored her family's estate, in order to come to terms with memories and inherited trauma.
The black and white motifs are dark and eerie, and intensely loaded with history and memories. Following her grandmother's passing, the photographer (born 1992) decided not to simply document the estate in Upper Franconia, which had been in the family for over 200 years, but rather chose, with reflective analysis and deeply personal awareness, to stage individual objects and spatial situations in a kind of allegorical play. When combined together, the items of daily life, duvets, a glimpse into a laundry cupboard, chairs hanging on roof beams, and bland bedroom walls become increasingly unsettling. Models of houses entwined by snakes; dark abysses opening up under floorboards; historical family pictures and building plans referring to the family's history. The many animals that also found a place in the series are notable: horses, birds, and snakes; as well as dead creatures and body parts, such as webbed feet and feathers. The narrative progresses with motifs of eggs, birds and fleshy growths (an allusion to the title Plexus – a network of nerves or vessels). These motifs are interwoven with family photos, suggesting connections and relationships between enigmatic symbols, people and places.

What took place in this house? What traumatic memories are reflected in the furnishings and memorabilia? The series, produced in 2018, remains associative. “The images permeate a figurative search for apparent repetitions in the story, and reflect the way I repeat my mother’s and grandmother's behaviours,” the photographer explains on her homepage: “By confronting a past that stretches over four generations, a renewed sense of identity provides the grounds for a detailed examination of postmemory, mental health, war and history.” With sensitivity and spontaneity, the photographer dedicates herself to the magic of the property. In her series the architecture becomes the stage, while the items found there become the central figures. The author sees them as a “fictitious family constellation, a theatre piece”. It also gradually becomes clear why the book has a leporello binding: you have to decide whether to leave the book untouched, or whether to sever the double pages so as to be able to see the pictures inside. It is a symbolic act, because it is only by injuring the book pages that understanding can grow. It is also necessary to sever certain pages to be able to read the accompanying short story, The House Surgeon, by British novelist Camilla Grudova. The text does not deliver any explanation, but rather offers a literary take on the theme of inherited trauma.

Altogether, an exciting photo book! The precisely-designed publication format transforms the whole award-winning series into an even more fascinating "cinema for the mind".
Ulrich Rüter
All images on this page: © Elena Helfrecht

Elena Helfrecht: Plexus+-


With a text by Camilla Grudova
104 pages, numerous black and white images
24 × 30 cm, English

Published via VOID
Website Elena Helfrecht 
Instagram Elena Helfrecht


Book tip: Plexus