SKREBNESKI: THE FIRST FIFTY YEARS : PROFILE
Throughout his career, Skrebneski has worked with the world's most beautiful women. But when the budget for his book, The Art of Haute Couture, turned out to be too small to cover the cost of models, he used his impressive conceptual skills to create one of the most memorable photographic series of his career.
"When we ran out of money and couldn't afford models for this book, I remember thinking to myself 'Okay, I'm in a jam. I have to figure out how to do this project without models and without money.' But it was actually kind of fun to try to figure out how to make it happen. In the end, I had my assistant throw some of the couture garments up in the air in front of Parisian landmarks such as the Place Vend˘me. I was very happy with the end result. But you can only do this with couture clothing, because if you threw a t-shirt up in the air, it wouldn't hold its shape in the way that a couture garment would. The workmanship in these garments is incredible."
In 1962, Skrebneski began shooting advertising campaigns for Estee Lauder and, for the next 27 years, his elegant and exquisitely produced images of models such as Karen Graham, Willow Bay and Paulina Porizkova literally changed the face of beauty in America.
Skrebneski's fashion and beauty images were models of precision and classical composition, skillfully designed and flawlessly executed. But they represented only one part of the photographer's multifaceted vision.
When Skrebneski shot for himself, he embraced blur. The photographer's urban landscapes were the antithesis of his commercial work, offering an impressionistic, often distorted perspective of Skrebneski's beloved second city, Paris.
"In the fifties, I started to use motion in my photography a lot," he recalls. "I went to Paris and began experimenting with slow shutter speeds. Everything in these images was blurry. I loved blur at that time, but what I found when I got back from Paris was that I couldn't use it in my fashion or agency work. The editors and art directors just didn't understand it. So I'd save it for my personal work and for exhibitions."
With his "black turtleneck" series a collection of moody, reductive portraits of writers, actors, musicians and artists wearing an oversized black cashmere turtleneck that the photographer toted from one session to another Skrebneski tapped into the darker side of the human condition. Using only one light and a stark gray background, he combined a minimalistic approach to portraiture with an uncanny knack for revealing the inner essence of his subjects. He captured a fiercely cerebral Orson Welles (framing Welles so that the actor's intense visage was almost crowded out of the frame by his own imposing bulk) and a remote, brooding Andy Warhol, eyes closed and arms wrapped protectively around his chest. Other celebrities photographed for the series included Bette Davis, Truman Capote, Liza Minnelli, John Huston and George Hurrell.
Throughout the decades, countless other creative luminaries have stood in front of Skrebneski's lens including Diana Ross, Diahann Carroll, Candice Bergen, George Cukor, Audrey Hepburn, Iman, David Bowie, Jerzy Kosinski, Jean Stapleton and Oliver Stone.
But it was his nude portrait of Vanessa Redgrave, shot in Hollywood in 1967, that resonated in the collective consciousness of an entire generation. Emblematic of the turbulent sixties and the rise of feminism, it was one of the most memorable and most reproduced images of that decade. Now in the permanent collections of The Museum of Contemporary Photography, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and MOMA, itssculptural representation of form and classical lines reflect the photographer's early training in painting and sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago and Maholy Nagy's Institute of Design.
"Art has always influenced my photography," Skrebneski acknowledges. "My favorite artist is Francis Bacon, but I'm also influenced by Balthus, Picasso and Matisse. In terms of photographers, George Hurrell was a big influence. People have often said that my images are sculptural, and yes, I believe that they are. I think of everything as a piece of sculpture and I photograph it like that. Whenever I shoot a nude, it looks like a Roman statue carved out of marble or stone. My 'back series' is from a period when I just photographed backs, often eliminating arms and legs in the style of Greek and Roman statues that had lost limbs due to vandalism or breakage."
What is, perhaps, most interesting about Skrebneski's approach to photography is his dedication to technical simplicity. He employs a full array of lighting and camera equipment for many of his commercial assignments and much of his color work, but when given a choice, he always believes that simpler is better especially when he's shooting black and white portraits.
"I usually try to keep my shoots very simple," he confides with classic understatement. "I don't want to get involved in complexity. I'd rather concentrate on my subjects."
For his studio work, Skrebneski shoots with a Hasselblad camera, often with a 120mm lens. He uses only one light whenever possible, often the same light that he's used for years, a 1,000-watt GE incandescent bulb with a 22" reflector. And when Skrebneski takes to the streets of Paris to shoot his urban landscapes, he leaves the standard tools of his trade behind and wanders unencumbered through the city with a single, 35mm point-and-shoot camera.
According to Skrebneski, not much has changed about his photography over the years.
"Maybe the images look a little more relaxed now," he muses, pushing his glasses back on his nose. "I started doing multiple and split frame images in the 80's and 90's because I found it amusing and it was another way of designing an image. People are too serious about most things anyway. It's only a photograph and after 50 years of doing photography I do think it's time to relax with the idea." When one has reached the half century mark in one's career, it seems to be as good a time as any to pause, reflect on the journey and take stock of one's oeuvre. Skrebneski did just that in 1999, when he produced a 50-year retrospective for Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Photography and compiled a corresponding book entitled Skrebneski: The First Fifty Years.
"It was not easy to look at every photograph that I'd done in my life and then try to decide what I wanted to put into the book or the retrospective," states Skrebneski. "I decided fairly quickly not to organize the images chronologically. Early in the process, something clicked in my brain while I was doing a fashion shoot in New York. The model did something that reminded me of a photograph of Ethel Merman that I'd taken in 1959 and I thought 'Hey, that's kind of nice, maybe I'll organize my book in that way.' After the shoot, I pulled out the photo of Ethel Merman and looked at it. She had raised her hand and moved it while I was shooting, so there was a lot of blur. The model in the New York fashion shoot that I'd just completed had done the same thing with her hand, and she had a similar expression on her face, so I decided to use the two images as a diptych. I found other photographs that related to each other in some way, such as the photograph of Monsieur Givenchy running in the rain while holding a coat over his head and the image of the model wearing the red silk Givenchy gown. They looked wonderful together. It was the same feeling, although the images were shot at different times."
After putting together a 50-year museum retrospective and a book of 135 images produced between 1949 and 1999, most people might be inclined to take a breather. But, according to Skrebneski, there's still too much work to be done.
"I think that life is too short to begin with, and when one has finally figured out what one is doing, it's already over," he philosophizes. "I still have a lot that I want to do, so I'm always eager to move on to new projects.
"Right now, I'm completing a book of portraits featuring ensemble members of Steppenwolf, which is a theater company in Chicago. This project has brought together some incredibly talented actors. Each portrait session was wonderful. The actors each brought something unique to the camera; they were expressive and marvelous and fun. I think they gave me some of the best performances that they have ever done."
This newest project, perhaps more than anything that Skrebneski has done in the past, reflects the photographer's emphasis on revealing the inner essence of his subjects. Each actor stands unadorned in front of a plain white background, illuminated by a single light bounced off of the ceiling in his Chicago studio. These portraits, like Victor Skrebneski himself, are unencumbered by excess and devoid of artifice. One sees only the actors, unmasked and exposed by Skrebneski's unwavering eye.
As an image-maker, Skrebneski has no peers. By now, his name has become synonymous with elegance, beauty, drama and an unsurpassed interpretation of form. From the young boy who found his first camera on a park bench to the photographic virtuoso that he has become, Skrebneski has continued to amaze and gratify us with his way of looking at the world for more than five decades. He has published eight books and countless catalogs, and his work hangs in the permanent collections of The Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
It has been said that a prophet is never honored in his own land, but Skrebneski is as revered in his home town of Chicago as he is in the fashion houses of Paris. Upon the opening of his 50-year retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, he donated 162 of his prints to the museum, prompting Mayor Daley to proclaim September 8th Victor Skrebneski Day in Chicago. And the street outside of the studio that he opened in 1952 and still occupies today bears an honorary street sign installed by the city that reads: Victor Skrebneski Way. But perhaps no one has summed up Skrebneski's stature as one of the 20th century's greatest visual artists better than Frank Zachary, editor emeritus of Town and Country magazine:
"When I think of Chicago," he writes, "I think of the buildings of Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe. I think of the poetry of Vachel Lindsey, Carl Sandburg and Gwendolyn Brooks. I think of the novels of Frank Norris, Saul Bellow and James T. Farrell, the plays of David Mamet and Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur.
When I recite the litany of masterworks, I also see the photographs of Victor Skrebneski, who deservedly belongs in any pantheon of Chicago's cultural heroes. Victor is a Chicago boy who never left home, but became a citizen of the World through the medium of his art. Impeccably composed, immaculately rendered, the Skrebneski photograph is his universal passport."