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Chloe Sells is working out of a darkroom space near London's Old Street roundabout. The space is small and up a flight of stairs, marked from the outside by two low-key signs attached to the frosted glass windows of a wooden double door, inconspicuous here, surrounded by the glass facades and the open-concept whiteness of the design studios lining the street. The darkroom (equipped with medium and large format DeVere enlargers) is one of three, each sitting off a brightly lit room where two people are working quietly, surrounded by stacked boxes of photographic paper, test prints and two big processing machines.
The space is steeped in the technical know-how of the photographic process, and it has the comfortable worn feel of a quality workshop. It is a space that has become rare as digital imaging has overwhelmed the market. Sells only works with analogue processes, and before enrolling on her masters degree she was warned by Central Saint Martins that they had dismantled their darkrooms - common fate for many art school darkrooms.
Sells grew up in Aspen, a place known for its mountain landscapes, winter sports and resorts. When she was 17 she took part in a summer program across the country at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). It was here she first encountered experimental darkroom processes, such as the manipulation and printing of a photographic image without using a negative. This potential fascinated Sells. When she finished high school she spent two years travelling before getting a BFA in photography from RISD. After graduating she continued to travel and eventually found herself in Botswana, where she currently splits her time with London.
All this travel has contributed to the sense of place that informs much of Sells' current work, alongside an appreciation of nature, instilled from growing up in the mountains of Colorado. It becomes clear from her current work, and the way she discusses it, that the natural contours of the earth are what shapes her interaction with it. Her photographs interpret place as a memory or an invocation of feeling, “I can smell them and I can feel them. Feel the air, feel the light.” They become tangible artifacts of that moment when they were created, she hopes that they can communicate an emotional resonance rather than any sort of straight documentation. Part of what makes the work so tangible is her use of the physical properties of photography.
In a way the creation of her photographs is very traditional, in some sense even archaic, and she laments the possibility that her working methods might one day become “extinct.” At worst this reliance on traditional processes and natural subject matter can sometimes fall into a sort of rosy nostalgia, but Sells negates this issue by using the darkroom in anything but a traditional sense. She fends off nostalgia by embracing the chance, immediacy, and uniqueness of her process. She bends the paper, changes the light, and works in an intuitive way only partly planned as she re-experiences the image as she prints it.
“It used to be that my photographs were a means to an end; it’s a really new way for me to work to have the image just be part of the process rather than the actual outcome.” Speaking to jotta in her darkroom she says, “It gives me a space to think when I am in fog; I get spacey and make mistakes but that it is part of it taking me far away. Sometimes it is the best part of the work.”
Encompassing her practice is a view of analogue processes that focuses on their potential rather than their demise, emphasising that artists using analogue are, even still, pushing the boundaries of the medium. “I have been looking at a lot of photography,” Sells says, the artists she mentions typify this innovation, such as James Welling and Wolfgang Tillmans. Like these photographers Sells has a unique vision of what constitutes an image and a photograph.
However, unlike some, this unique quality is built directly into Sells' process. No less evident than in the work she has created for the jotta Editions Space, Benguerra. The prints, made using one negative, are manipulated through folding and the control of light that creates something eerily similar yet also distinct every time. In conceptualising Benguerra she focused on the individual memory to create a dreamy, and imagined sense of place that is, at its core, beautiful. It is in this work that all of her interest in travel, escapism, memory, imagination and the importance of beauty appear. She says with a smile, “It’s a big fat sunshine picture! Somebody is going to live in London and love having that.”
Read more about Central Saint Martin's MAFA Editions Artists:
Anja Aichinger here
Damilola Oshilaja here
Enda Mac Nally hereGeorgina McNamara here