What is a photograph, exactly? Photography has always been a malleable medium, but these days, fine art photographers are fanning out in all directions, from digital-savvy practices in which imagery is manipulated onscreen and in-computer, to the process-based path taken by someone like Chloe Sells, who conceives of the photograph as a unique object. Foregrounding the materiality of the medium, Sells manipulates her works entirely in the darkroom, where she combines analogue photography, darkroom manipulation, cutting, and occasionally painting. Though they lean toward abstraction, the images have a narrative underpinning that alludes to a sense of place – specifically, Botswana, in southern Africa.
An exhibition of Sells’s photographs at Julie Saul Gallery through June 11 coincides with the publication of her artist book SWAMP, published by Gost Books. Sells splits her time between London and Botswana, where she took these images, using a 4×5-inch view camera. But the original negative is just a jumping-off point: In the darkroom, she layers imagery, adds swaths of color, and slashes the large-scale prints into irregular shapes, giving them a sculptural, hand-made quality that carries over to her smaller, intimate 4×5-inch contact prints, which she hand paints with wavy patterns and tie-dye colors.
Sells’s experimentation with scale is one through-line in these images, in which a swatch of textile can read as an aerial view or the leaves of a palm tree can form an abstract, lattice-like pattern. She is well versed in photographic techniques, but her work has an improvisatory quality as well that reveals the gesture of the artist’s hand. A meditation on place, her work is also about the medium of photography, its elasticity and expressive capacity.