‘He was a handful’ – Personal assistant and photographer to Hunter S Thompson relives his savage work | Photography
ohOn the evening of late 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 photo book, Damn hot !: 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 town’s most infamous resident. The woman was his wife, Anita. “It only took me a moment,” Sells said, “to answer ‘yes’ to everything. “
Sells ended up working as Thompson’s personal assistant for just over a year, doing “whatever needed to be done.” His typical work hours were 11pm until dawn, and his duties included preparing his often-made-to-order dinners (microwave turkey dinner with soup, chutney, peanut butter and salsa), him read his prose as he shouted instructions (“Louder, louder, slower, slower”) and cope with his increasingly frequent explosive outbursts against his editors, editors, acolytes and the world in general.
“I was in my late twenties in rock’n’roll fashion, young and bulletproof,” she says. “I had grown up in Aspen in a pretty wild bohemian family and knew that nothing Hunter was doing could bother me. In fact, the only thing that touched me was cigarette smoke. There were so many.
Sells’ father had been a hippie in his youth, opening one of Colorado’s first “head shops” in nearby Boulder, selling drug paraphernalia. Much like Thompson, he had moved to the mountains in Aspen in the late 1960s to escape the pressures of normal life. In the decades that followed, however, the city became a hangout for the privileged and famous, drawn to its breathtaking Rocky Mountains, winter sports, libertarian politics, and abundant availability of cocaine. “You could hike and ski by day and have tons of coke at night,” Sells laughs. “There were dealers and busts – and mountains worth of cocaine that was regularly flown on board Cessnas. “
By the 1990s, Aspen had become a real estate agent’s dream, attracting top celebrities including Goldie Hawn and Sylvester Stallone, as well as younger Thompson sidekicks including Johnny Depp, who played his alter ego – Raoul. Duke – in the film version of the writer’s novel. most famous book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. “You would suddenly see famous people everywhere,” Sells explains, “but the attitude that prevails in Aspen is not to watch or make a big deal out of it. “
At Owl Farm, Thompson’s precinct in Woody Creek, she soon realized that her irascible employer demanded not only his unwavering attention, but also constant intellectual stimulation until the early hours of the morning. “I decided early on that I would never get lost with him,” she says proudly. “I stayed upright throughout my time there. I had seen the contempt he reserved for those who came to pay him homage, got completely stoned and began to do stupid things. They have never been well received.
For all his volatile unpredictability, Sells describes Thompson as “essentially an old-fashioned southern gentleman,” whose outbursts of anger were often immediately followed by heartfelt contrition. Once, after taunting her by telling her that Taschen was publishing a book of his photographs, he immediately felt guilty and gave her carte blanche to photograph the interiors and contents of Owl Farm, the only part of his life. that had not been widely documented. She immediately accepted his offer.
The negatives of this era languished in storage for 10 years, while Sells’ work shifted from a mere documentary to a vividly experimental approach close to pure abstraction – swirls and color patterns skillfully applied to his. landscapes in the darkroom.
A somewhat bohemian herself, Sells lived for over 20 years between London and Botswana, where her late husband Peter Sandenbergh ran a safari camp business. His previous book, Flamingo, was filmed on the salt marshes of Makgadikgadi in the desolate heart of the Kalahari Desert. In 2016 Peter died of cancer and soon after found out she was pregnant as a result of the IVF treatment they had undergone while ill. “Suddenly my partner was gone and I was pregnant and trying to figure out what to do and how to be an artist,” she says. “That’s when I thought, ‘Let’s just dust off those old Aspen negatives.'”
Unsurprisingly, fucking hot! – which took five years to complete to his satisfaction – is a more hybrid work than its previous series. Sells originally shot Thompson’s living quarters and estates in a fleeting documentary style that captures all the hovering chaos of a life lived on the edge: his cluttered desk, piles of unfinished manuscripts, various birds and stuffed and mounted animals, firearms, ephemera from his writing career, his hat collections and his electric typewriter, as well as countless Post-its with often extravagant titles – Sodomized at the airport, Olympic disaster in Utah, The wisdom of Nashville and the violence of Jack Nicholson. Pure gonzo, actually.
More intriguing are the dreamlike psychedelic imagery that punctuates the book, creating a narrative that constantly shifts from visceral to confusing – much like, one would imagine, everyday life in Woody Creek. “I don’t do documentaries anymore,” Sells says, “and to be honest I looked at some photos and found them 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 he really started singing, but I think he delivers that emotional quality that comes close to what the ride was like – the speed, intensity, pressure of working with Hunter, but also the strange intimacy. This refers to his heritage, but also to the spirit of my own creativity.
Much to Thompson’s dismay, Sells last left Woody Creek in January 2005, after deciding to travel to Thailand to document the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami. Weeks later, on February 20, her father called her to tell her that Thompson had died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. “My legs flexed and I fell to my knees,” she said, falling into silence 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 was in constant chronic pain. His body was degenerating and his mind was not so sharp. Basically, he wasn’t having fun. Plus, he had this crush on Hemingway. Hemingway had committed suicide with a double barreled shotgun in 1961.
Sells remembers a conversation in the early hours of the morning when Thompson mysteriously told him that he had taken care of her death. “In my head I was like, ‘How is that possible?’ Then a few days later, I was like, “OK, this is what was going to happen. But it never occurred to me that this would happen under my watch. That I was so close to it was what was really shocking.
How does Sells think about her time in Woody Creek? “With gratitude,” she said. “Hunter was a handful: he lived to break the rules. That was his thing. But he was also inspiring and invigorating, because he was so quick and intelligent. He would have had fun taking down Trump, that is. sure. But behind it all, he was an old school gentleman. He couldn’t help himself, even in the midst of all the rants and bad behavior. He was someone who stood up when a lady stood up. walked into the room. She paused for a second. “That’s if he was able to stand.”