E.G. Schempf has photographed the artwork of some of Kansas City’s best-known artists. Alongside the commissioned work he undertakes for artists, galleries and museums, Schempf takes personal photographs around the edges.
His new exhibit, E.G. Schempf — Pedestal View at Sherry Leedy Contemporary Art, showcases a selection of behind-the-scenes images of darkened galleries and test photographs he has taken over the years. Sherry Leedy says Schempf is humble and sees himself as merely supporting artists, but that without Schempf those artists would go unseen.
“He’s a really important part of the art world,” says Leedy. “Pretty much what most people know of what art looks like in Kansas City is through E.G. Schempf’s photographs.”
Recently at the Epsten Gallery at Village Shalom, the lights were off when Schempf arrived to take pictures of Israel-based Yuval Yairi’s photography exhibit. After 45 years of photographing art in Kansas City, Schempf was in familiar territory, moving benches and chairs with great care to create the most visually pleasing composition.
Schempf’s photographs offer a careful construct of light and shadow. He says he applies knowledge gleaned from the world of commercial photography to idealize objects while remaining true to the artist’s vision.
“When I document an artist's work, I have to make sure that it’s their work represented in the way they want it,” Schempf said.
The silent gallery offered an intimate communion with the art on the walls. As Schempf moved around the exhibit space, the only sound was the metallic click of the shutter. While he admitted he enjoys the chance to experience art apart from opening-night crowds, Schempf said he's most interested in the connection with artists and the opportunity to collaborate in the creative process.
“I am really devoted to my documentation work, and some people I’ve worked with forever,” he said. “I think that they (artists) appreciate my eye.”
Schempf said he discovered photography in the early 1970s when he studied painting at the Kansas City Art Institute. Some of his first commissioned work as a photographer was documenting paintings for student portfolios. Photographing paintings remains a passion for him.
“If I could just go to the Nelson and shoot paintings, I would really love that,” Schempf said. “Exploring the surfaces of paintings and making them look like the painter would want them to look, that’s what’s always driven me.”
Photography is a craft in constant evolution. While Schempf said he can envision the day when a camera phone will replace him, he believes a professional photographer brings value to the art of documentation.
“The biggest competitor I have now is people take pictures with their phones,” he said. “Sadly, blowing stuff up doesn’t render the detail that a good camera can.”
After taking a few final shots of the exhibit, Schempf announced that his work for the day was done.
“I don’t think I can do anything else,” he said as he packed away his equipment and turned off the lights.
“E.G. Schempf—Pedestal View,” through March 24 at Sherry Leedy Contemporary Art, 2004 Baltimore, Kansas City, Missouri, 64108; 816-221-2626.
Julie Denesha is a freelance photographer and reporter for KCUR. Follow her @juliedenesha.