German photographer Elena Helfrecht’s work has a power and mystery to it that stays with you, a sort of insistent haunting, her work tackles difficult subjects, mental illness, despair, and the landscape of emotions. Unravelling tales of quiet wonder emerge in series like Little Stories, where we encounter a sort of endless observation, watching, waiting, the tension built by the suggestion of something ominous, lurking, coming together like tiny vignettes that form one larger mythology.
Many of the Elena’s works include dark nocturnal lighting, images of wrought flesh, torn, re-sewn, dusted with sand or grit, — eerie images of the womanly breast as a focal point of eroticism and perhaps facility, exposed and made lyrical in a way that oscillates between the two viewpoints.
Work like the ongoing series Between the Skin –focuses on the traces that experience leaves on the body.
In some works there is an intimate close up look at the hollows scrapes, scars of the human body speak of quiet eroticism.
And yet as well, many of Elena’s work might frighten –they take such a perilous path to tale telling, to the gothic, the dreadfully exposed.
This is seen most plainly in the picture of the woman suckling a white doll. The harrowing image reminds one of the terrible photos of old insane asylums, as does the photo in that same series of the woman huddled on a dusty floor. The artist shares that the photos symbolize the loneliness of mental affliction, the fear of the permanence of generations of mental illness, and conversely the need for self-care and the universal need for mothering.
Elena was raised in the forest country of Bavaria roaming around in the forests and along the river close to her childhood home that stood perched on a hill. She studied art history and art, but taught herself to photograph and in her work, there is an earthy rawness that has the mark and grit of memory, the cycle of life playing across tableaux of sorrow.
Elena notes of the Bavarian tradition: “Our archaic folklore is somehow dark and violent. However, it is also intriguing and deals with emotional issues including subconscious fears and problems. Forests are my safe place where I could always go to be myself, without being judged, just existing and wondering about the life around me. A part of my series “Rituals” was shot in this place. As a child, I loved wandering around and imagining what else hides in the trees, full of fear and fascination…”
For the artist, writing and drawing is a negotiation of sadness, a process to retrieve her ideas and emotions, an extraction of sorts, and the nude body serves to expose these emotions, to work through her emotional life and that of her subjects in a way that is unflinchingly composed…
Rosa Berland:What does making art mean for you?
Elena Helfrecht: I am a very melancholic person and the urge to create comes for the most part from dark places inside. Photography saved me a lot of times. When I get the images and emotions in my head out, I feel relieved. It is a skill to cope with my experiences and illness. I do not really head for eroticism, but I can understand it can be seen in my images. Working with nudity seems only natural for me, since I am most intrigued by pure human being. Through our visible exterior I can tell the stories that hide beneath the skin. I must admit that I feel more connected to women, maybe because I can better identify with them. They seem softer, somehow, not only physically. But it is nothing I could rationally identify.”
RB: Perhaps it is the purity one sees in the exposure that takes place within the pictures that translates into an intimacy or eroticism.
On a different note — The Nightmare Series –this tiny attic, tell me please a little about this place, I see the tooth fairy is also shot here? What do these dreams represent or evoke for you? The two figures seem symbolic, in and out of the real and imagined world, that of sleep and the unconscious…. versus the seen world…
EH: The attic is a place I come back to pretty often. I love the light and the atmosphere which for some of my photos is essential. “Nightmares” is a lot about sub consciousness and the unexplainable – sometimes also a direct visualization of my own bad dreams and visions.
RB: What sort of equipment do you like to use for your photographs?
EH: A Canon 600D and mostly a standard zoom lens from Tamron.
RB: How do you choose your models or subjects, what might draw you to a person?
EH: I choose my subjects only by emotional connection. I need to have some basic trust in someone I photograph and I need to feel equally comfortable. Working with strangers is still extremely difficult, but I am working on it. Mostly I have something like an invisible “shield” around me, that protects me from sensing too much, but when I photograph it just disappears. This makes me quite vulnerable.