Chloe Sells’s Hot Damn!
Rather than pure archive, this book shows writer Hunter S. Thompson through the eyes of his assistant.
(GOST Books, 2022)
There’s a fetishistic curiosity for seeing how people live. I don’t mean squinting at details behind people’s heads on Zoom calls, but a more intimate glimpse into the surroundings and décor of fabled figures whose interiors we’ll never be invited to inspect. This thirst for seeing where and how people live was capitalized upon by blogs like Todd Selby’s in the late 2000s, and magazines like Apartamento thereafter. These tap into the cachet of lifestyle, a belief that creative types aren't just their ideas, but the full environment they inhabit.
Journalist Hunter S. Thompson would without one doubt loathe those references but, in a way, his legacy is susceptible to the same spirit of inquisition—especially because he encouraged his assistant, Chloe Sells, to photograph his Aspen abode: a wood-paneled brick-chimneyed log cabin nestled in the snow. His immersive (and excess-riddled) approach to writing, as well as his anti-authoritarianism and addiction, is well-chronicled—but it’s another thing to see it couched in a certain kind of “realness,” like his writings systematically filed in cardboard boxes or delineated on index cards tacked onto corkboard. Sells knew Hunter and his habits: she worked for him devotedly for two years, until his death in 2005. Her photographs of the premises reflect his lewd, chaotic, funny, bullheaded, impossible, outlandish persona. Sells recalled, in a statement she wrote in 2004, reprinted in the back of the book, 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.”
Sells followed through on his offer. The book, Hot Damn!, is her vision of Thompson, rather than pure archive. The images are about him—if in absentia, as he is not physically in them, nor did he see the resulting visuals before he died—but they reflect Sells’s experience and the prism through which she saw his work: as madcap yet momentous. The rooms are illuminated with natural light in the day, but more often relying on flash to compensate for the writer’s preternatural nocturnal frenzy (“Rage, rage against the coming of the light” was Thompson’s distortion of Dylan Thomas’s poetic refrain—seen scrawled on a worn scrap of paper). Sells added a marbling effect atop outdoorsy Colorado landscape scenes of trees, rivers, and mountains, creating a kind of psychotropic seepage: an appropriately warped vision à la Thompson. The cover is firetruck red—the color of unhinged fervor!—and within, thick matte papers are mixed with flimsier magazine-like inserts. “Hot damn!” is what Hunter used to exclaim when hearing the best of his own writing, often revisited, read back to him.
“The hedonistic, bohemian lifestyle that may have baffled or scandalized some was home to me,” Sells wrote, recalling—in a series of captions—watching a line-up of porn films and naked basketball tournaments with her boss on his Panasonic TV. Amongst other totems, there’s his Rolodex filled with “the number of every rock star, politician, journalist, actor and lawyer you could need in times of fun, misfortune, danger or whoring.” (Sells’s first task at Owl Farm was to call each person listed to verify the contact information was still current.) There’s the Oxford English Dictionary splayed open to the page in which Gonzo was cited, between tennis player “Gonzales, Richard Alanso” and the word “goo.” (Journalist Bill Cardoso first used the term as a descriptor of Thompson’s piece on the Kentucky Derby, published in Scanlan’s Monthly in the 1970s, which Hunter adopted from that point on.) There’s his cat, sea green-eyed in a beige chair, or captured from behind with a paparazzi-shielding tail, who was apparently as dependent on drugs as Hunter was. There’s the omnipresence of written messages and signage (mostly featuring imperatives): a loose-leaf sheet instructing “never call 911 never / this means you” (written below a black-and-white photo of Bill Clinton on his first campaign trail and magnetically secured to a black refrigerator); a doormat that practically barks ‘COME BACK WITH A WARRANT’ (gifted to him, ironically enough, by a sheriff); a pellet gun inscribed with ‘For the business we have chosen’ on its flank.
If our spaces reinforce our own mythologies, they also betray details that show us to be more average than legendary. For all Thompson’s shit-talking drug-addled outsized living, there’s something endearing about seeing Newman’s Own dressing on his counter, or his use of hotel stationery, or his bag of cat food in the bathroom, or pastel Valentine’s Day candy hearts in a bowl, amongst the quotidian items that ostensibly anyone could have.
Despite these down-to-earth touches, Thompson was certainly not interchangeable with anyone (even if now seemingly everyone has cacti and taxidermied animals). Moreover, ordinary domestic items didn’t mean the same thing to him as to everyone else. “Hunter loved flowers—especially orchids—and there were always fresh blooms in the house,” Sells apprised, but he upended them to have insubordinate meanings. “After he received flowers he would dry them out and give them to people he hated.”