Portraits are the most intimate photographs. The image will survive the subject. –Victor Skrebneski
He became interested in photography when he found a camera in a park. Seven-year old Victor Skrebneski turned the camera into lost and found. He said in an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times in 2000, “I took it inside and gave it to the lady at the desk. She said if no one picked it up in a week, I could have it.”
Skrebneski mainly taught himself how to take pictures. He loved the blurry look he got by shaking the camera. “No one told me when I was seven years old that I shouldn’t shake the camera,” he said. “That was the beginning, and I liked the way it looked, and I didn’t know there was any other way to look.”
Victor Skrebneski studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Illinois Institute of Technology then opened his studio in Chicago in 1952. Although he thought about moving to New York, a series of assignments from the Chicago department store Marshal Fields changed his mind. He traveled the world making photographs in places like Paris but Chicago remained his home.
Discovering Cindy Crawford
Victor Skrebneski did not “discover” Cindy Crawford but he mentored her while she was still a teenager in the 1980s. At one point she left during a catalog shoot for an out of town assignment leading to an estrangement of a decade and a half. Eventually, they reconciled and remained friends until his death in April 2020.
Crawford wrote about him on her Instagram page, “I was so saddened to hear about the death of #VictorSkrebneski. Working with Victor was one of the great privileges of my modeling career. He was my first mentor and taught me so much about the art of modeling and photography. Those years I spent on his set under the beautiful lighting being directed by a true artist, prepared me for my life in fashion, but also, his elegance and sophistication shaped my definition of a true gentleman. He will be missed.”
Skrebneski and the Chicago Film Festival
He created attention-getting poster for the Chicago Film Festival starting in 1966 when its founder, Michael Kutza asked him to make the festival “sexy. He ended up putting it on the map.”
Estée Lauder woman campaign
Skrebneski did advertising for the cosmetics company Estée Lauder. His series and other work for the company lasted for 37 years. He published “Five Beautiful Women” in 1987 featuring five models who were Estée Lauder women: Phyllis Connor Karen Haris, Karen Graham, Shaun Casey and Willow Bay.
Some criticized Skrebneski for being derivative. He used black turtlenecks in his celebrity portraits which Richard Avedon had done when he photographed the Beatles. Yet, Skrebneski’s portraits of Orsen Welles, Andy Warhol and Bette Davis wearing them are enduring and a noted style all his own.
Not everyone wore turtlenecks. One notable celebrity and his wife wore nothing at all. Skrebneski talked about photographing David Bowie and his wife Iman.
“Every picture I photographed him in, he’s naked. He absolutely loved being naked. He told me he didn’t know what he looked like. When he goes to everybody else’s photography studio, they dress him up, they make him up, they do his hair and that’s not him, so he wanted to see how he was. I think I introduced Iman to him and did their wedding picture and they’re naked. It’s beautiful and one of my favorites.”
Read more in The New York Times obituary of Victor Skrebneski
Get inspired with On Photography on Photofocus.