Photographers often find inspiration in their own backyards. For Chloe Sells, her backyard happens to be the Okavango Delta in Botswana, a place she has called home for 15 years. Her work, a mix of landscapes taken with a large-format camera and manipulated through darkroom and other artistic techniques, was published as a book Swamp, released by Gost.
Sells, who grew up in Colorado, first came to Botswana on a family trip. “I fell in love, and I never left,” she said. Although she has an affinity for the location, she also fell in love with a man she met during that trip who is now her husband. He owns the lodge she arrived at in a small dugout canoe; the lodge is “completely wild and on an open expanse of land that hasn’t been touched by people.” She never looked back.
“I thought it was the most amazing place I’ve seen,” she said.
A lot of Sells’ time is spent exploring the delta, a “beautiful, magical” place she says is really a swamp that receives rain waters that trickle down from Angola. The landscape changes often, as do the migration patterns of animals; she documents them with the large-format camera because she says it is so “juicy and beautiful and elegant.” Once she’s done shooting, she spends long spells in the darkroom that can last for weeks at a time. She creates a short list of images she’s interested in working on and said the night before she hopes to have “some kind of lightning flash” for inspiration.
“I have a really spontaneous working process,” she said. “I look for a surprise; I will then focus on to make it sort of stand out more in a work as I go along.” Her work is divided up into two segments. The first is inspired by “test strips” she creates in the darkroom that are essentially small pieces of the image, which are traditionally used to test out color or density. In this case, although she is testing for those things, she isn’t limited by them and will manipulate the results to get unique, often vibrant colors and prints.
“They might be perfect because the color is absolutely wrong and that highlights something that wouldn’t be seen otherwise,” she said. “The experiment creates some type of synergy.”
She has piles of these strips—or “fragments,” as she calls them—she then sometimes draws on with ink, markers, pen, paint, or anything else she has on hand. Apart from the fragments, she also works with 4-inch by 5-inch contact prints that are interspersed throughout the book.
“I really like making the book because there’s some kind of determinant thing about pushing one image up against another and staying that way,” she said. “In the book you get to build relationships that are forever.”
An exhibition of Sells’ work, “Under the Sun” is currently on view at Julie Saul Gallery in New York through June 11.