Shot on the salt pans of Botswana and reworked in the dark room, Chloe Sells' latest series is a meditation on the cyclical nature of life
Several thousand years ago, the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans were the largest inland sea in Africa. Today, the 30,000 square kilometres of mineral flats in the Kalahari Desert make up the biggest salt pan in the world. When it rains, they become vast, shallow lakes.
Chloe Sells photographed the landscape for two years while her husband, who passed away in March, was dying as a way to process her grief. “It’s a very contemplative landscape,” she says. “I found a place that was very beautiful and also empty. It’s a special place – anything that I brought there, there was space for.”
The photographs, overlaid with pen and ink drawings, make up her latest series, Measuring Infinity, which is on show at the Michael Hoppen Gallery in London until 22nd December.
Sells lives between London and Botswana, where she has had a home for 15 years, a two-and-a-half-hour drive from the salt pans. Working at sunrise and sunset, when “there’s either an opening or a closing taking place”, she photographed the horizon line.
“On the one hand, it is a steady stopping point – you can see it in front of you, the horizon is seven miles away – but in fact, if you continue to chase the horizon you would end up in the same place, if you walked all the way across the globe,” she says.
“There’s a cyclical nature to it – this infinite nature and this finite sense, because it’s a line that has been drawn into the landscape.”
At certain times of year, the salt pans are filled with rainwater; in Sells’ photographs, this water looks like an endless sea. “The water itself that you see in the images, it looks like an ocean but it’s actually probably knee-deep. It’s an illusion, in many ways.”
After shooting the images, Sells put them to one side for up to a week, then manipulated them in the darkroom – intersecting the soft, gentle tones with vibrant swirls of ink or geometric strokes of colour.
The drawings in part to reflect that “the wildness has this sort of dangerous edge,” she says – it’s a place of extreme heat , where “the difference between 5.30am and 6.30am can be 20 degrees”, and inhabited by biting ants. “The feeling of being there is really elemental,” says Sells.
The drawings are also a form of self-expression. “Like my darkroom work, my drawing work is very intuitive. I think I am just searching for some kind of balance between image and mark and shape and form an experience and memory – and how they sort of highlight one another in the best possible way.”
The photographs are about “the beauty and profoundness of just being present and being in nature,” says Sells; she hopes the images offer a space in which “to become rested from the troubles and the turmoil and the greyness, and the stark nature of just trying to make ends meet”.
“But I really believe that my pictures are not my own, and the minute that you add another person, you add all of the experiences that they bring to the table,” she adds.
The photographs are arranged at different heights in the Michael Hoppen Gallery, so that the horizon line runs continuous around the room. “I think the images are kind of experiments in consciousness, in processing,” says Sells.
Measuring Infinity by Chloe Sells is on show at Michael Hoppen Gallery until 22 December.