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Spotlight: Rooks, Knights, and Pawns from the World Chess Hall of Fame

By David Schonauer   Sunday August 27, 2017


Every photographer needs a hobby.

For St. Louis-based commercial photographer Michael DeFilippo, it’s chess. Sort of. One of DeFilippo’s clients is the World Chess Hall of Fame  in St. Louis, and his work there has given him an artistic appreciation of the game.

“St. Louis is a town where word-of-mouth advertising still counts. I started photographing for the Chess Hall on referral from an art gallery client,” DeFilippo says. For the Hall, he shoots installations and objects for marketing, press releases, catalogs and events, and over the years he has photographed rooks, nights, pawns, kings and queens from a number of memorable chess sets.

But DeFilippo, a PPD reader, is the kind of photographer who tends to get deeply involved with projects. “Last year, for instance, I began a long-term research and art project involving the late Bronze Age in the Aegean,” he says. “As this region is foreign to me, I needed ways to organize my geographic references. I made a 20-foot-by-8-foot topographic map of the entire Mediterranean and Black Sea region on two walls of my bedroom. It took about three months of work in my spare time.”

Last year PPD featured  another of DeFilippo’s personal projects — a series exploring the effects of the Instate Highway System on St. Louis. “Business for me was abysmally slow during the first quarter, and since it was the 60th anniversary of the interstates, I thought it would be an interesting way to fill up my spare time,” he said.

Likewise, his work for the Chess Hall of Fame fired his creative impulse — though not in a strictly photographic direction. Rather, DeFillipo recently created his own unique chess board and donated it to the Hall, which then put it on display through August as the “Chess Set of the Month.”

“I made a topographic map of the moon from wood, joint compound and paint, based on a NASA map, then added an etched glass board that I had made at a local vendor,” says DeFilippo. “The Chess Hall added the pieces from a different set that has a space theme.”

Here is DeFilippo’s board as featured at the Chess Hall of Fame:

As for his other work for the Chess Hall, DeFillipo has shot everything from an early 20th century silver, copper, and enamel set and board from Hungary to chess sets designed by Man Ray and Isamu Noguchi. There was also a wine glass set and board based on a 1944 piece created by Andre Breton and Nicolas Calas.

“The first chess set I photographed was a piece from Yoko Ono’s series “Play it by Trust,” which features all-white chess pieces on an all-white board,” he says. “The set included two white chairs and a white table."


Early 20th-century Hungarian chess set



Man Ray chess set


Yoko Ono chess set

A recent exhibit at the Chess Hall of Fame titled “Animal, Vegetable, Mineral” featured a collection of chess sets inspired by the natural world or crafted from natural materials. “Not only did I photograph chess pieces of amber, ivory, crystal, wood, and a variety of precious metals and stones, but I also photographed the elements themselves. This included a 10,000-year-old lump of amber with termites encased inside,” says DeFilippo.

Another recent show titled “POW! Capturing Superheroes, Chess & Comics” features more than 200 chess-related comic books, 18 rare and limited-edition chess sets. “There was a point in the middle of a day’s shooting when I was hunkered over a chess set featuring comic book heroes from my childhood when I started to smile. A voice in my head said – ‘You are being paid to play with toys,” DeFilippo says.


Wine glass chess set


Wonder Woman chess piece

“These sets are provocative pieces that stimulate thought and discussion beyond the game of chess,” says DeFilippo. “They and other work in this show were in part responsible for my foray into chessboard creation.”

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