Chloe Sells’ artistic practice is one that hinges on physicality, experimentation and the creation of unique, one-off objects. While this has previously only been applied to the prints she makes for exhibitions, these same characteristics are at the heart of Swamp, her first book.
Sells’ work begins to take shape in her adopted home of Botswana, in the southern African country’s Okavango Delta, one of the largest inland deltas in the world, where she shoots the flora and fauna of the bush, and where the title of the book originates. “The Okavango Delta was rebranded for marketing purposes to be called a delta,” explains Sells. “But technically it really is a swamp. It’s a series of different islands and channels that grow and shrink, changing throughout the year, every year, depending on the level of the floodwaters. The connotation of the word ‘swamp’ is that it’s unknown, slightly strange, otherworldly, and maybe scary. The swamp is full of all kinds of animals and creatures that often times see you but you don’t see them. I wanted to play on that because that’s what it really feels like living there and working there.”
After Sells has shot her images on large-format film in Botswana, the next step takes place in her darkroom in London, another place she calls home. “When I go into the darkroom I make a series of experiments to decide or realize how I think a piece should be finished,” she says. “And that process takes a long time – a day or two. I’m just overlaying color or texture or trying to get into the place where the image reveals something that I hadn’t seen before, some kind of synergy.” She then develops the image onto large fragments of paper which end up being the final pieces of work. These, along with her drawings directly onto 4×5 inch contact prints, make up the 136 pages of the book.
Published by GOST Books, Swamp features unevenly cut and sized pages printed full-bleed with the vivid, abstract imagery that has come to define Sells’ work. Each and every silk-screened cover of the 500 copies of the book is unique in its coloring, a result of changing the ink while the covers were on press. The only text in the book is on the spine, a conscious choice for Sells in enhancing the experience of the book. “I really wanted it to be an explosion of imagery, an aesthetic adventure, a journey,” she says. “My work feels so physical and I wanted to use the physicality of a book [to convey] the intensity in the swamp, in the bush. And that was more important to me than text.”
The publication of Swamp coincides with Sells’ solo exhibition, Under the Sun, at New York’s Julie Saul Gallery, which is made up of more than 60 prints. And, given the nature of her practice, each is available only in an edition of one – a rare occurrence in photography. For Sells, however, making a book hasn’t diluted this aspect of her work but rather enhanced it. “It was really nice to make an object because an exhibition is sterile – everything is on the wall and you can’t touch it. In a book, the viewer can interact with the object,” she says. “They can start from the front, the back, the middle. It’s participatory and I appreciated that. It’s also made me feel sure of exactly where I am technically. My vision is coming clear in a number of different mediums and that feels right.”
Lauren Heinz is a freelance writer and curator based in Los Angeles.