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by Alice Oliver

Elena Helfrecht is a visual artist who works within the photographic medium. Elena's work revolves around the inner space and the phenomena of consciousness, emerging from an autobiographical context and opening up to the surreal and fantastic, at times grotesque. Interweaving memories, experiences, and imagination, she creates inextricable narratives with multiple layers of meaning, characterised by a visceral iconography. 

SOLA Journal founder, Alice Oliver, discusses with Elena, her fascinating practice and her ongoing body of work ‘Plexus’, a photographic case study based on still lifes that emerge from inherited trauma and postmemory, exploring the family as an essential contributor to psychological and cultural processes across history. Following the death of Elena's grandmother, she returned to her family estate in Bavaria, using the house and its archive as stage and protagonists for an allegoric play.
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AO: Could you tell us a little bit about your early life, where did you grow up and how did that environment shape you and subsequently your practice?

EH: I grew up in a small village in Bavaria (probably around 20 houses), very rural and surrounded by the forest. As a child, I would spend a lot of time hearing and reading about the myths and legends of my home area, and subsequently, connecting my imagination with the surrounding landscapes, creating something like a parallel dimension for myself. At some point, I probably wasn’t really able to tell what was real, and what was imagined anymore; but how do we define reality anyway? Somehow, this hasn’t changed much since then. Especially the landscapes, the dark forests here, which I connected so much with the worlds in my head, have influenced me heavily (and they still do).

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AO: Can you tell me a bit about how your photographic practice started? Where did you study, and what were some elemental moments in your photographic education that helped or hindered the shaping of your practice?

EH: I started photography in a self-taught way while studying Art History and Book Science for my BA. From there, photography has become more and more important in my life, until I decided to dedicate myself to it entirely. In the beginning, I was influenced by paintings more than by photographic history, which has slowly changed the more I got enveloped in photography. Studying for my MA at the Royal College of Arts was a fundamental moment for my practice. There I had, for the first time, the time and the resources to fully dedicate myself to my artistic practice and to find the core of it all.

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AO: Can you tell us a bit more about your ongoing body of work Plexus and the start point for this project?

EH: The seed for ‘Plexus’ was already planted right after my grandmother died and through many conversations with my mother, about how my grandmother’s childhood experiences still impact us. But at that point in my life, I didn’t have enough emotional and geographical distance to really work with the house and the archive. I really needed this distance and a certain mental detachment in order to view the house and its history through fresh eyes and to be open to new perspectives and discoveries. Basically, and very simplified, I try to materialize the invisible processes of inherited trauma and the resulting reoccurring patterns in personal and shared history through the objects and architecture of the house, which has homed several generations of my family for more than 200 years.

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AO: Was Plexus a new step within your practice or something that evolved out of earlier concepts or themes that you had worked with in the past?

EH: Plexus definitely evolved out of earlier concepts and themes but was equally a new step in my practice. I was not taking photography as seriously before, despite toiling a lot with it. Before it was much more impulsive and situational, without any research or much reflection, and I didn’t have the time or resources to work and research consistently on a long-term project. The themes and the foundation were there long before, though, and basically, Plexus just takes them to the next level. Interestingly enough, I then recognised a lot of the emerging symbols and motives from my very beginnings in photography, especially animals. Birds, moths, the forest, and death, for example, follow me since I first touched a camera.

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AO: How did the Pandemic and lockdowns affect your photographic practice, were you still able to produce your work as before, or has your practice evolved from these limitations?

EH: I definitely wasn’t able to produce my work as before, but somehow I still managed to use photography to cope with these limitations. When the pandemic hit in London, I went out on nightly walks and took my camera with me, without any goal or concept. Not being able to travel home made me feel trapped during that time, especially since the forests and more rural parts around London are not accessible without spending a significant time on public transport. Equally, I was not really able to meet friends. I had completely isolated myself. My approach to photography during that time was even more diaristic than before, and the result of this is Teri Varhol’s and my first book, ‘Augury’, which was recently published by Antics Publications.

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AO: Some photographers prefer to work with photobooks and publications, while others feel that exhibiting their work is the most effective way to resolve and expose their work. Based on your own personal practice, what do you think suits your work best, and how have you come to this conclusion?

EH: I see my work equally in exhibitions as well as in books, though the presentation and the selection of images differ significantly. Most of my works are very detailed, so I think they can only fully unfold and draw the beholder in when presented as a haptic print and in a certain size. Books function in a very different way and give me much more control of how the project is viewed. It has a different flow and rhythm, and each image suddenly just becomes a word in a sentence. An exhibition is more fragmentary than a book, in my opinion, and it speaks to the viewer on a different level. Also, books are way more intimate, which is something I greatly appreciate. That being said, I am working on turning Plexus into a book one day.

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AO: As a young female photographer, do you have any advice to offer other young female photographers on gaining exposure and making a name for yourself, in what might be considered a quite male-centric industry? 

EH: Don’t be shy about your work, and don’t compromise. Don’t take harsh criticism (especially coming from older men; not always, but often) too seriously (better: filter out what can be of use to you). Stand up for yourself and never do anything you don’t feel 100% comfortable with. And, most importantly, help and support each other. Work together, especially as women! It’s easy to start comparing yourself to others and to see this whole industry as a big competition, as its structures are very much engineered towards that. Instead, try to find common grounds and similarities, stand up for each other and create your own opportunities (this suggestion applies in general, aside from genders).

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AO: Please can you share with us some of your favourite photobooks or bodies of work that have influenced your practice?

EH: My favourite photographer was and will always be Joel-Peter Witkin. His work really impacted me on such a deep, emotional level, especially during my BA. Equally, I adore the works of Annegret Soltau, Frederick Sommer, George Shiras, and Roger Ballen, to just name a few. But it’s not only photography that inspires me. I still love painting, especially Symbolism and Romanticism, and of course, literature.

Some of my favourite photo books of all time are Ravens by Masahisa Fukase and Opfer by Herlinde Koelbl. More recent additions I adore very much are, for example, Jana Hartmann’s Mastering the Elements and of course, Shannon Taggart’s Séance, which I finally got my hands on after years of waiting.

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