Kansas City’s premier photographer of art objects and exhibitions is also a keen-eyed artist in his own right
In any given art ecology there are species that are ubiquitous yet not easily recognized. They may have a camouflaged appearance but wield an outsized influence on the system. Consider E.G. Schempf, the go-to photographer of art objects and exhibitions, a keen-eyed artist in his own right, an understated fixture of Kansas City’s art scene for a half-century who has enjoyed a front row seat documenting the ebb and flow of Kansas City’s artistic fortunes. His images of Kansas City art and artists have been published around the world.
“E.G. is one of the most important photographers of art and museum installations in the country,” said Bruce Hartman, former executive director and chief curator at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, who has worked with Schempf for 30 years. “E.G. possesses an uncanny ability to capture the nuances of museum installations. His images encapsulate the art, gallery space, architecture, lighting, etc. — all the aspects which make museum installations memorable and revelatory.
“Our forthcoming Nerman Museum monograph will largely be comprised of hundreds of images by E.G Schempf,” Hartman added. “As such, it will be an homage to numerous artists and exhibitions, as well as E.G., himself.”
Schempf joked recently that he’s a “parasite of the art world.” In the same breath he acknowledged how lucky he has been to forge his own career in the specialized field of photographing fine art. He meant to say that he’s a symbiotic species with artists in the ecology. The relationship is mutually beneficial. He is essentially one of them. His success is the artist’s success. His art is to make other people’s art look, somehow, even better.
Schempf was born in California but grew up in Tulsa with a talent for art and music. A self-proclaimed troublemaker in his school years, he found a constructive outlet though creativity. In high school he played in a rock band with his long haired friends. Mother supported his art practice, his geophysicist Dad — not so much. If it wasn’t for art classes he might not have made it through, he recalled.
At the end of the turbulent 1960s, he attended Kansas City Art Institute, where he studied abstract painting with Lester Goldman. A trippy mishap during his sophomore year resulted in his arrest for LSD possession. Having absorbed the countercultural mandate to “turn on, tune in, drop out,” the next step was obvious. He left art school and went back to Tulsa. He set aside his art practice and tuned in to his own spiritual development, specifically a deep study of Egyptian astrology.
After a couple of years of soul searching, he decided to return to finish his degree at KCAI and focus on representational painting. Around the time he returned to Kansas City, his parents had given him a 35mm camera. He quickly became obsessed with the medium and set up a darkroom in his apartment. KCAI was just forming its own department of photography, so Schempf switched majors and never looked back.
On His Way
He was primarily a self-taught photographer and didn’t have much in the way of mentorship or decent equipment, but he immediately found work photographing other people’s artwork. He shot the work of his painter wife at the time, and several friends, like the artist John Puscheck, whose exploits at his Charlotte Street “Mission” around art, food and community became the stuff of legend for KC’s burgeoning art scene. That soon led to a foot in the door with The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, where Schempf photographed permanent collection pieces on 4×5 and 8×10 black and white film. As word got out to other artists and galleries around the city, he was on his way, learning photography and lighting techniques on every job.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of photography to the reception of art. An editor once told Schempf he’d rather have good photos of bad art than bad photos of good art. Even in our current period of gratuitous image making and sharing on digital platforms, photographic images of artwork exert enormous power and influence on the aesthetics and economics of art.
As we have recently experienced during the pandemic, the art world bent over backward to offer mediated, virtual experiences to spectators. Many artists made themselves and their practices more accessible than ever through image-based social networks. We are in a moment where the art image has nearly supplanted the art object in importance. Artistic image makers like Schempf remain in high demand.
Through his career, Schempf has adapted his skillset to the revolutionary turns in the photographic medium, namely the shift from film to digital media and the endless possibilities afforded by graphics editing software. His studio walls are now lined floor to ceiling with camera and lighting gear. He’s accumulated decades of experience working with hundreds of artists from multiple generations in all manner of media. He’s exchanged his services for artwork with many of them.
The Photographer as Connoisseur
Schempf’s home is a veritable salon-style museum, reflecting a collector with broad aesthetic tastes, from folk art to figurative painting to industrial sculpture. “I really love painting,” he told me. “I was a painter. I love photographing paintings and making them look fantastic. To me, paintings are like sculpture.” It is this understanding of artist materials and how artwork is made that helps set Schempf’s images apart.
Fellow artist Garry Noland affirmed as much: “E.G. is an artist. There is science, logic and analysis in his practice but also a huge helping of intuition. Schempf steps into the artist role when (I imagine) he asks himself ‘what works best for this piece, in this space, for this artist?’” Combine that connoisseurship with rigorous lighting, and through his lens he brings out the unique textures in both two- and three-dimensional work.
Ceramic artist Joey Watson put it this way: “He makes my work look sexy. He cares. You can see it in his eyes; he’s genuinely engaged, and that makes a difference. It translates in the images he captures. They aren’t static things he’s taking photographs of; they’re alive through the people who make them, and he gets that. That’s why his work has a pulse.”
Sherry Leedy, gallery director, curator and artist, has long recognized Schempf’s unheralded role in shaping the external image of Kansas City’s art scene. “He is the premier photographer of all artwork big and small in our city. He is invited into artist’s studios, museum and gallery backrooms. He is there behind the scenes, after hours, observing, lighting and shooting, not only the artwork but the tools of the trade.”
Leedy prodded Schempf for years about exhibiting his own work. He finally relented in 2017 with his first solo exhibition, “Pedestal View,” at Sherry Leedy Contemporary Art. In two dozen color photographs Schempf exposed the wry, meta vision of his practice. His images foreground stark pedestals, a tape-strewn step ladder, stapled backs of stretched canvases, or dueling tripods facing off in a naked gallery. Several works reveal the collaborative relationships he forms with artists, artwork and the materials of display, including photography itself. The images shift effortlessly from the controlled chaos of the artist’s studio to architectural hardscapes of art institutions to eerie formalism only found in the gallery by night.
“In his personal photos, he captures the atmosphere of the space, the shadow cast by a fleeting figure, and the photographer’s props. He sees the art alone, in the gallery, when the lights are out and shows us that quiet beauty. He shoots the empty pedestal waiting with dignity to support the next art placed upon it just as E.G. waits to support the next artist and give them their best shot,” added Leedy. One can sense in this body of work his preference to operate behind the camera while expressing a genuine empathy and advocacy for the work of the artist.
“One aspect of my job that I treasure is that I’m often the first person to see the artist’s newly completed work,” Schempf explained. “My lighting and camera positioning act as a stage where the art is formally displayed. It is an unusual time; the artist has finalized their vision and can step aside, and we can have wonderful conversations about the work.” That’s when Schempf’s payoff becomes his practice, the thrill of intimate interaction with new work and its makers. Once he locates the artist’s vision, the vocation of light and lens kicks in and the art ecology benefits.
Top: E.G. Schempf (photo by Jim Barcus)