In imagery, physical spaces can become characters in their own right, particularly in the absence of people. A potent example can be found in Elena Helfrecht’s new photo book, Plexus, which seems to ask: if walls really could talk, what would they reveal?
Plexus is the product of a five-year journey that began following the death of Helfrecht’s grandmother, which prompted her to retrace the contours of her ancestral history through the lens of her family home in Bavaria. The book brings together ominous black and white photographs taken around the house, whose “objects and architecture … open a gate between the past and the present”, Helfrecht says.
It’s all part of what she describes as a “process of reconnecting the fragmentary history of my female lineage” over four generations. Helfrecht explores how, like property or possessions, experiences such as trauma and memory can be inherited by later generations, left behind like the shedded snakeskin that appears in several of the photographs taken around the house.
There are more than a few elements that lend a ‘haunted house’ quality to the book: rows of chairs that seem to float mid-air; a hand slipped between folded linens; dismembered goose feet that appear to stand of their own accord. But these images serve a greater purpose than cheap scares – they’re a reminder of the fact that this is ultimately an exercise in storytelling, and that Plexus isn’t a factual record.
Original photographs sit in dialogue with archive materials and photographs, and several of Helfrecht’s images were shot in the same spots that appear in old pictures. But she admits to filling in the gaps with “dreams, associations and imagined scenes”, projecting fantasy and fiction onto lived histories – in much the same way as family stories take shape.
The book comes with a short story penned by Camilla Grudova called the House Surgeon, a twisted tale of a family terrorised by a tumorous growth taking hold of their home, a space that almost comes alive with the past. The story references the themes and even some direct motifs that appear in Helfrecht’s photographs – loose floorboards, snakes, and horses – which are woven into the story so organically that the images almost seem to document the account given in the story.
The final piece of the puzzle comes with the book’s ornate design, which lends it even more character. The textured, inky cover and interior illustrations link back to the book’s name, Plexus, which refers to the network of interlacing nerves and blood vessels found in the brain. On the cover, this elastic, fleshy web is applied over an image of a snake, with its own blotchy surface, the two layers appearing to intertwine. The pages towards the end of the book are joined at the outer edges and therefore have to be cut open, adding to the sense that, with Plexus, Helfrecht is inviting us to uncover family histories by her side.
Plexus by Elena Helfrecht is published by Void; void.photo