PDN Profiles Victor Skrebneski

A Photographic Legend Talks About his Life and Work

"I photographed her because she was beautiful and she was there." This spare and elegant sentence speaks volumes about the man who redefined our notions of beauty in the latter half of the 20th century. The words belong to Victor Skrebneski — who is reflecting on the beginnings of a career that has spanned more than 50 years of fashion, beauty, portrait, figural and street photography — as he sits in his LaSalle Street studio on Chicago's near north side. Fit and neatly dressed in a navy pullover and gray slacks, gazing out at the world with intelligent eyes through a pair of tortoiseshell glasses, he is the embodiment of humility, gentleness and grace — a brilliant artist who refuses to take himself too seriously and still refers to himself simply as a "working photographer."

At the moment, he is talking about his early portrait sessions with his sister, Jennie — whose elusive essence and averted gaze he captured on celluloid in 1949 — more than half a century ago. He was 20 years old at the time, still studying art at the Maholy Nagy Institute of Design, and still unaware that these early portraits would be followed by a lifetime of exquisite images.

"Those first photo sessions with my sister were very simple," the photographer continues. "I had a white wall, which I used as a background, and I sent the film to the drugstore to be processed. I'd get these matte prints back, which I'd crop by cutting them up. Later, when a friend gave me his darkroom equipment, I started printing the photographs myself. I never studied photography at the Institute of Design — I don't know why — but I brought my images in to show to Harry Callahan, who was one of the photography instructors there, and he loved them. He felt that the cropping was very unusual."

Although his background in art would later figure prominently in his work, Skrebneski soon abandoned painting and sculpture for a career in photography.

"It wasn't a decision of mine to switch to photography," he notes. "It's just what happened. Photography was something that I fell into and then decided I wanted to do it for the rest of my life because I liked it."

As far back as he can remember, Skrebneski has been inspired by beauty. When he was seven years old, he spent most of his free time with Dorothy Bates, an artist who rented the coach house behind his family's home in Chicago.

"She taught me everything about art," Skrebneski reminisces. "I pestered her constantly. She was an artist and an actress who worked for the W.P.A. She taught me how to paint and gave me my own palette of colors, and she even put me in plays. Every time we'd move, my mother would buy a building with a coach house, and Dorothy would move with us. I couldn't wait to get home from school in those days so that I could run right over to Dorothy's studio."

The son of Russian-Polish parents, Skrebneski also remembers frequent trips to the movies when he was young.

"Every day, my parents would take me to see films. My mother would take me to see love stories. My father would take me to see Russian and French films, and everything was in stark black and white, very contrasty. I think that probably influenced my photographic style later on. I'd look at the lighting and think, 'that looks nice, I'll try to do that.' So I'd set up my one light, and my poor sister would practically burn up from the bulb that I was using."

Skrebneski may have been self taught in photography, but his success was in no way impaired by this fact. By the age of 23, he was already shooting fashion for Marshall Field's — and his discerning eye and sophisticated artistic sensibility quickly catapulted him to the top of the fashion industry. He was soon shuttling back and forth to the fashion capitals of the world, shooting in New York and Europe for fashion's reigning elite, including Chanel, Givenchy, James Galanos, Christian Dior, Saks Fifth Avenue, Carolyne Roehm, Philippe Venet and magazines such as Town and Country and Vogue.

Skrebneski's training in art, coupled with his unfettered imagination, transformed fashion photography in the ensuing years. His images were intensely original, yet classically influenced. A profoundly sculptural photograph of a model wearing a billowing red silk Givenchy gown, for instance, immediately calls to mind the Winged Victory statue at the Louvre in Paris.

"I did have the Winged Victory in mind when I shot it," admits the photographer. "I love using fabric in the design of my images. It's the sculptor in me."