‘It was a handful’ – Hunter S Thompson’s assistant and photographer relives her wild work

She cooked his bizarre dinners, busied himself with his volcanic diatribes, and read his prose to him from dark until dawn. As Chloe Sells’ photographs of the gonzo writer’s chaotic cabin in Colorado are released, she remembers an invigorating and inspiring figure

  • By Sean O’Hagan / The Guardian

One evening in 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, Hot Damn! “She looked me up and down and said, ‘We’re looking for help with Hunter. Are you a night owl? Would you be interested?'”

Hunter, as all the 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 says, “to say ‘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 working hours were from 11 p.m. until dawn, and his duties included preparing his often elaborate dinners to order (microwaved turkey dinner with soup, chutney, peanut butter, and salsa), re-reading his prose as he shouted instructions (“Louder, Louder, Slower, Slower”) and dealing with his increasingly frequent outbursts of explosive anger at his editors, publishers, acolytes and the world in general.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

“I was in my late twenties in full rock ‘n’ roll mode, young and bulletproof,” she says. “I had grown up in Aspen in a pretty wild bohemian family and knew that nothing Hunter did would bother me. In fact, the only thing that got to me was the cigarette smoke. There were so many. »

Sells’ father had been a hippie in his youth, opening one of Colorado’s first “head shops” in Boulder, selling drug paraphernalia. Like Thompson, he had moved to the mountains from Aspen in the late 60s to escape the pressures of straight life. In the decades that followed, however, the city became a meeting place for the privileged and the famous, attracted by its breathtaking Rocky Mountains, its winter sports, its libertarian politics and its abundant availability of cocaine.

“You can hike and ski by day and coke piles at night,” Sells says with a laugh. “There were dealers and busts – and mountains of cocaine that were regularly flown in on Cessnas.”

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

By the 1990s, Aspen had become a realtor’s dream, attracting celebrities such as Goldie Hawn and Sylvester Stallone, as well as young Thompson cronies 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.

“You would suddenly see famous people everywhere,” Sells says, “but the prevailing attitude in Aspen is not to stare or make a fuss about it.”

At Owl Farm, Thompson’s compound in Woody Creek, she realized early on that her irascible employer demanded not only her unyielding attention, but also constant intellectual stimulation until the early hours.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

“I decided early on never to lose myself with him,” she says proudly. “I stayed upright throughout my time there. I had seen the contempt he held for those who showed up to pay their respects, got completely fucked up, and started fooling around. They were never welcomed again.

For all his volatile unpredictability, Sells describes Thompson as “essentially an old-fashioned Southern gentleman”, whose tantrums were often immediately followed by heartfelt contrition. Once, after taunting 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 which had not been widely documented. She immediately accepted his offer.

Negatives from this era languished in storage for 10 years, while Sells’ work evolved from mere documentary to a vivid experimental approach akin to pure abstraction – swirls and patterns of color skillfully applied to his landscapes in the dark room.

Somewhat bohemian herself, Sells 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 salt flats of Makgadikgadi, 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 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, Hot Damn! – which took five years to complete to his satisfaction – is a more hybrid work than his previous series. Sell ​​originally shot Thompson’s living quarters and possessions in a flying-on-the-wall documentary style that captures all the hovering chaos of a life lived on the edge: his cluttered desk, stacks of unfinished manuscripts, miscellaneous stuffed and mounted birds and animals, firearms, ephemera from his writing career, his collections of hats and his electric typewriter, and countless Post-it notes with often extravagant titles – Sodomized at the Airport, Olympic Disaster in Utah, The Wisdom of Nashville and the Violence of Jack Nicholson. Pure gonzo, in fact.

More intriguing are the dreamlike psychedelic imagery that punctuates the book, creating a narrative that constantly shifts from visceral to woozily disorienting – much like one imagines everyday life in Woody Creek.

“I don’t do documentaries anymore,” Sells says, “and to be honest, I looked at some of the pictures and thought they were a bit boring. I started using the Japanese and Italian marbling techniques I had studied to push the boundaries a bit. It took a few years before he really started singing, but I think he has this emotive quality that comes close to what the ride was – the speed, the intensity, the pressure of working with Hunter, but also the strange intimacy. It highlights his heritage, but also the spirit of my own creativity.

Much to Thompson’s chagrin, Sells last left Woody Creek in January 2005, after deciding to travel to Thailand to document the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami. A few weeks later, on February 20, her father called to tell her that Thompson had died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.

“My legs gave out and I fell to my knees,” she said, falling silent for a few moments. “It’s not that I didn’t see it coming, because he talked about it a lot. His health was declining and he was in constant chronic pain. His body was degenerating and his mind wasn’t as sharp. Basically, he wasn’t having fun. Plus, he had a crush on 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 taken care of her death.

“In my head, I thought, ‘How is this possible?’ Then a few days later, I was like, ‘OK, this is what was going to happen.’ But it never occurred to me that it would happen under my watch. That I was so close is what was really shocking.

How does Sells reflect on her time at Woody Creek?

“With gratitude,” she said. “Hunter was a handful: he lived to break the rules. It was his thing. But he was also inspiring and invigorating to be there, because he was so lively and intelligent. He would have had fun defeating 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 stops for a second. “That’s if he was able to stand.”

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