THATOne evening in late 2003, Chloe Sells walked into the J-Bar in Aspen, Colorado, in search of a late-night drink when an elderly woman approached her. As Sells remembers in his new photo book, Hot Damn !: “She looked me up and down and said, ‘We’re looking for help for Hunter. Are you a night owl? Would you be interested?'”
Hunter, as all locals knew, was Hunter S Thompson, the famous creator of “gonzo” journalism and the city’s most infamous resident. The woman was his wife, Anita. “It only took me a moment,” Sells says, “to answer ‘yes’ to everything.”
Sells ended up working as Thompson’s personal assistant for just over a year, doing “everything and everything that needed to be done”. Her typical working hours were at. 23:00 until dawn, and her tasks included preparing his often elaborate dinners to order (microwave turkey dinner with soup, chutney, peanut butter and salsa), reading his prose back to him while shouting instructions (“Louder, louder, slower, slower”) and deals with his increasingly frequent bouts of explosive anger at his publishers, editors, collaborators, and the world at large.
“I was in my late 20s in full rock’n’roll mode, young and bulletproof,” she says. “I had grown up in Aspen in a pretty wild bohemian family, and I knew that nothing that Hunter did could bother me. In fact, the only thing that came to me was cigarette smoke. There was so much of it.”
Sells’ father had been a hippie in his youth, and opened one of Colorado’s earliest “main stores” in nearby Boulder, where he sold drug paraphernalia. Like Thompson, he had moved to the mountains of Aspen in the late 60s to escape the pressures of straight life. In the decades that followed, however, the city became a haunt of the privileged and the famous, attracted by its breathtaking Rocky Mountains, winter sports, libertarian politics, and abundant availability of cocaine. “You could hike and ski during the day and make a lot of cola at night,” Sells says, laughing. “There were dealers and busts – and mountains of cocaine that were regularly flown into Cessnas.”
By the 1990s, Aspen had become a real estate agent’s dream and drew celebrities on the A-list, including Goldie Hawn and Sylvester Stallone, as well as younger members of the Thompsons, including Johnny Depp, who played his alter ego – Raoul Duke – in the film version of the author’s most famous book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. “You would suddenly see famous people everywhere,” Sells says, “but the prevailing attitude in Aspen is not to stare or make a big deal out of it.”
At Owl Farm, Thompson’s facility in Woody Creek, she realized early on that her rebellious employer demanded not only her unwavering attention but also constant intellectual stimulation into the early hours. “I decided early on to never go to waste with him,” she says proudly. “I stayed right there all my time there. I had seen the mockery he reserved for those who showed up to pay tribute to him, were completely stoned and started behaving stupidly. They were never welcomed back.”
Despite all his fleeting unpredictability, Sells describes Thompson as “essentially an old-fashioned southern statesman” whose outbursts of anger were often immediately followed by heartfelt remorse. Once, after mocking her with the news that Schenectady was publishing a book of his photographs, he immediately felt guilty and gave her free rein to photograph the interior and contents of Owl Farm, the one part of his life that had not been thoroughly documented. She immediately accepted him for his offer.
The negatives of that time languished in storage for 10 years, while Sells’ work moved from direct documentary to a vivid experimental approach close to pure abstraction – swirls and color patterns deftly applied to her landscapes in the darkroom.
Even something of a bohemian, Sells has lived for over 20 years between London and Botswana, where her late husband Peter Sandenbergh ran a safari camp business. Her previous book, Flamingo, was shot on the Makgadikgadi salt pans in the desolate heart of the Kalahari Desert. In 2016, Peter died of cancer, and soon after, she found out she was pregnant from the IVF treatment they had undergone while he was ill. “Suddenly my partner was gone and I was pregnant trying to figure out what I was going to do and how to be an artist,” she says. “That was when I thought, ‘Let’s just dust off the old negatives from Aspen.’
Not surprisingly, Hot Damn! – which took five years to complete to her satisfaction – is a more hybrid work than her previous series. Sells originally shot Thompson’s homes and belongings in a fly-on-the-wall documentary style that captures all the hovering chaos of a life lived on the edge: his cluttered desk, piles of unfinished manuscripts, various stuffed and prepared birds and animals, weapons, ephemera from his writing career, his collections of hats and his typewriter, plus endless Post-it notes with often extravagant titles – Sodomized at the airport, Utah Olympic disaster, The Wisdom of Nashville and Jack Nicholson’s violence. Pure gonzo, actually.
More exciting are the dreamy psychedelic images that characterize the book, creating a narrative that constantly shifts from the visceral to the woozily disorienting – not unlike, one imagines, everyday life in Woody Creek. “I’m not doing documentary work anymore,” says Sells, “and to be honest, I looked at some of the pictures and thought they were a little boring. I started using the Japanese and Italian marbling techniques I had studied to moving the boundaries a bit.It took a couple of years before it really started to sing, but I think it offers this emotional quality that comes closer to how the trip was – the speed, the intensity, the pressure of working with Hunter, but also the strange intimacy. It points to his legacy, but also to the spirit of my own creativity. “
To Thompson’s annoyance, Sells left Woody Creek for the last time in January 2005, after deciding to travel to Thailand to document the effects of the Indian Ocean tsunami. A few weeks later, on February 20, her father called her to tell her the news that Thompson had died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. “My legs tensed and I fell to my knees,” she says, falling into silence for a few moments. “It’s not because I did not see it coming, because he talked a lot about it. His health gave out and he had constant chronic pain. His body was in degeneration and his mind was not so sharp. Basically, he was not having fun. Plus, he was in love with Hemingway. “Hemingway had taken his life with a double-barreled shotgun in 1961.
Sells recalls a conversation in the early hours when Thompson mysteriously told her he had his death taken care of. “In my head I thought, ‘How is that even possible?’ So a few days later I thought, ‘OK, that’s what was going to happen.’ “It never occurred to me that it would happen on my watch. That I was so close to it is what was really shocking.”
How does Sells think back to his time in Woody Creek? “With gratitude,” she says. “Hunter was a handful: he lived to break the rules. That was his thing. But he was also inspiring and invigorating to be with because he was just so sharp and smart. He would have had serious fun taking Trump. down, that’s for sure. But on the whole he was an old school gentleman. He could not help it, even in the midst of all the quarrels and bad behavior. the room. ” She pauses for a second. “That’s if he was able to get up.”