A psychedelic journey into Hunter S. Thompson’s ramshackle cabin

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For the two years before his death in 2005, Chloe Sells worked as personal assistant to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas author, Thompson. Her new book introduces us to his inner sanctum in Woody Creek, Colorado

In 2003, Colorado born-and-raised photographer Chloe Sells attended the premier of a documentary about Hunter S. Thompson (1937-2005) in Aspen. As she walked into a bar following the showing, a blonde, dark-eyed lady stopped her. “We’re looking for some help for Hunter. Are you a night owl? Would you be interested?” she said. It was Anita Thompson, the iconic counter-cultural writer and journalist’s wife. Sells accepted the job on the spot, and began commuting to Thompson’s fortified cabin, known as Owl Farm, every evening at 11pm.

Thompson is best known for his 1971 semi-autobiographical novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and as the founder of “Gonzo Journalism”: a style of reporting that features the journalist as the protagonist. But, Thompson is remembered for his complicated character as much as for his work: his love of firearms, contempt for authority, and lifelong abuse of alcohol and drugs.

It’s said you can tell someone is an alcoholic because they have stopped eating. Hunter’s dinner was served in the deepest, quietest part of the night, long after the peacocks were put
to bed and often after the guests had left. It was a cacophony of flavor: box soup, chutney, peanut butter, salsa, mustard, endive, celery, garlic salt, microwave turkey dinner, Paul Newman’s salad dressing, whiskey, coffee, beer, a cigarette. © Chloe Sells.

As his personal assistant, “unofficially, I did anything and everything that needed doing,” writes Sells, in a text that accompanies her latest book, HOT DAMN!. “One night, Hunter beckoned me to his chair in the kitchen and said, ‘So, you say you’re a photographer. Well, Taschen is doing a book of my photographs,’ followed by a mocking ‘Ha, Ha’ … A moment later his face changed, and, looking sheepish and sorry for bullying his young assistant, he began to explain that almost his whole life had been documented – except for his home – the ramshackle, remarkable creative heartland that was Owl Farm. It needed to be visually archived, he said to me, and it was mine to photograph if I liked.”

The resulting work is a psychedelic journey into Thompson’s inner sanctum. Sells combines photographs of his belongings and handwritten notes with images of the surrounding landscape, layered with swirling patterns made directly onto prints. Using a Japanese marbling technique known as ‘suminagashi’, or ‘floating ink’, these kaleidoscopic manipulations render a visual representation of Thompson’s life and work.

Hunter liked stuffed animals. He had a taxidermist Down Valley that he was friendly with. He liked to go down and pick his parts; the guy had trays of animal eyeballs to choose from. © Chloe Sells.

The Ghosts of Ashcroft © Chloe Sells.

An index at the back of the book provides further insights into the writer’s character and private life: hedonistic stories that are humorous at best, but on the whole disturbing. We meet his cocaine-addicted pet, Screw Jack the cat. “Whenever he got hard up for drugs he would let forth a hair-raising cry and Hunter would scoop up some coke and blow it into his mouth,” writes Sells.

One night, following a report of sexual assault, the police raided his home to find a few ounces of marijuana, 39 hits of LSD, a small number of opiate sedatives and some sticks of dynamite. We also learn about Thompson’s penchant for watching B-rated porn and naked basketball, as well as his alcoholism and odd eating habits.

In many ways, Thompson is remembered more for his persona than for his writing. As Sells writes, “Hunter was Hunter”, and one thing is for sure: he lived the life he wrote, fully and unreservedly.

HOT DAMN! by Chloe Sells is published by GOST. The publication of the book coincides with an exhibition of the work, ‘I’ll be coming back as lightning’ at Galerie Miranda, Paris until 15 January 2022.

Marigold Warner

Marigold Warner joined the British Journal Photography in April 2018, and currently holds the position of Online Editor. She studied English Literature and History of Art at the University of Leeds, followed by an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London. Her work has been published by titles including the Telegraph Magazine, Huck, Gal-dem, Disegno, and the Architects Journal.

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