THEn late afternoon in 2003, Chloe Sells was walking into the J-Bar in Aspen, Colorado, looking for a late night drink, when an older woman approached her. As Sells recalls in his new photobook, Damn heat!: “He 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 the locals knew, was Hunter S Thompson, the celebrated creator of “gonzo” journalism and the city’s most infamous resident. The woman was his wife, Anita. “It took me just a moment,” Sells says, “to answer ‘Yes’ to everything.”
Sells ended up working as Thompson’s personal assistant for just over a year, doing “anything and everything that needed to be done.” His typical work hours were from 11 p.m. until dawn, and his duties included preparing him dinners often made to order (microwave turkey dinner with soup, chutney, peanut butter, and gravy), reading his prose to him while he shouted instructions. (“Louder, louder, slower, slower”) and dealing with his increasingly frequent attacks of explosive anger at his publishers, editors, acolytes, and the world at large.
“I was in my 20s in rock’n’roll mode, young and bulletproof,” he says. “I grew up in a pretty wild and bohemian family in Aspen and I knew nothing Hunter did would ever bother me. In fact, the only thing that affected me was cigarette smoke. There was a lot of that.
Sells’ father had been a hippy in his youth and opened one of Colorado’s first “head shops” in nearby Boulder, where he sold drug paraphernalia. Like Thompson, he had moved to the Aspen Mountains in the late 1960s to escape the pressures of normal life. However, in the decades that followed, the city became a hangout for the privileged and famous, drawn by its stunning Rocky Mountains, winter sports, libertarian politics, and abundant availability of cocaine. “You could hike and ski during the day and do a lot of coke at night,” Sells says, laughing. “There were dealers and arrests, and mountains of cocaine arriving regularly at Cessnas.”
By the 1990s, Aspen had become a realtor’s dream, attracting A-list celebrities such as Goldie Hawn and Sylvester Stallone, as well as younger Thompson acolytes, including Johnny Depp, who played his alter ego, Raoul Duke, in the film version of the writer. Most famous book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. “Suddenly, you would see famous people everywhere,” says Sells, “but the prevailing attitude in Aspen is not to stare or make a big fuss.”
At Owl Farm, Thompson’s complex in Woody Creek, he soon realized that his irascible employer demanded not only his unwavering attention, but also constant intellectual stimulation until the wee hours of the morning. “I decided from the start never to get drunk with him,” he says proudly. “I stayed upright the entire time I was there. He had seen the contempt he reserved for those who came to pay him homage, got completely drugged and started acting stupid. They were never welcome. “
Despite his volatile unpredictability, Sells describes Thompson as “essentially an old-fashioned southern gentleman,” whose fits of anger were often immediately followed by heartfelt contrition. Once, after teasing her with the news that Taschen was publishing a book of her photographs, she immediately felt guilty and gave her free rein to photograph the interiors and contents of Owl Farm, the one part of her life that she did not. it had been extensively documented. He immediately accepted their offer.
Negatives from that time languished in storage for 10 years, while Sells’ work shifted from pure documentary to a vividly experimental approach close to pure abstraction: swirls and patterns of color cleverly applied to his darkroom landscapes.
Sells, somewhat bohemian, has lived for more than 20 years between London and Botswana, where her late husband, Peter Sandenbergh, ran a safari camp business. His previous book, Flamingo, was filmed in the Makgadikgadi Salt Flats in the desolate heart of the Kalahari Desert. In 2016, Peter died of cancer and, shortly after, she discovered she was pregnant due to the IVF treatment they had undergone while he was ill. “Suddenly my partner was gone and I was pregnant and trying to figure out what to do and how to be an artist,” he says. “That’s when I thought, ‘Let’s dust off those old Aspen negatives.’
As expected, Hot Damn! – which took five years to complete to your satisfaction: it is a more hybrid work than its previous series. Sells originally shot Thompson’s home and possessions in a documentary style that captures all the floating chaos of a life lived on the edge: his cluttered desk, stacks of unfinished manuscripts, various stuffed and mounted birds and animals. , guns, ephemera from his writing career, his collections of hats and his electric typewriter, plus endless Post-it notes with often quirky titles: Sodomized at the Airport, Utah Olympic Disaster, Nashville Wisdom and Jack Nicholson’s Violence. Pure gonzo, actually.
More intriguing are the dreamy psychedelic imagery that punctuates the book, creating a narrative that constantly shifts from the visceral to the dazedly disorienting, not unlike, one would imagine, to everyday life in Woody Creek. “I don’t do documentary work anymore,” Sells says, “and to be honest, I looked at some of the images and thought they were a bit boring. I started using the Japanese and Italian marbling techniques that I had studied to push the boundaries a bit. It took a few years before I actually started singing, but I think it offers this emotional quality that is closer to what the ride was like: the speed, the intensity, the pressure of working with Hunter, but also the strange intimacy. It indicates his legacy, but also the spirit of my own creativity. “
To Thompson’s chagrin, Sells left Woody Creek for the last time in January 2005, having decided to travel to Thailand to document the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami. A few weeks later, on February 20, her father called her with the news that Thompson had died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. “My legs buckled and I fell to my knees,” he says, falling silently for a few moments. “It’s not that I didn’t see it coming, because he talked about it a lot. His health was failing and he suffered from constant chronic pain. His body was degenerating and his mind was not that sharp. Basically, he wasn’t having fun. Besides, he was in love with Hemingway ”. Hemingway had killed himself with a double-barreled shotgun in 1961.
Sells recalls an early morning conversation when Thompson mysteriously told him that he had dealt with her death. “In my head, I was thinking, ‘How is that possible?’ Then a few days later, I said, ‘Okay, that’s what was going to happen.’ But it never occurred to me what would happen on my watch. That I was so close to that is what was really shocking. “
How does Sells remember his time at Woody Creek? “With gratitude,” she says. Hunter was a bunch: he lived to break the rules. That was his thing. But it was also inspiring and invigorating to be around, because he was so sharp and smart. He would have had a lot of fun taking down Trump, that’s for sure. But underneath it all, he was an old-school gentleman. He couldn’t help himself, even in the midst of all the rants and bad behavior. It was someone who stood up when a lady entered the room. ” She pauses for a second. “That’s if he was able to stand up.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism