While the word icon is much bandied about nowadays, there are few more deserving of it than American photographic legend Victor Skrebneski. We lost the 90 year old Chicago photographer and portraitist last month to cancer, and his passing was mourned by many. Having photographed a multitude of the leading figures in their fields, from top models like Iman and Cindy Crawford to political leaders like Barack Obama to Hollywood stars like Audrey Hepburn and Diana Ross to cultural touchstones/entertainers like Andy Warhol and David Bowie; Skrebneski, through his 70 year career, leaves behind an expansive and comprehensive portfolio of the most visually recognizable figures of the 20th century.
We spoke to some of his long time model muses (including Karen Graham, first face of Estee Lauder for 25 years and the groundbreaking Beverly Johnson, the first African American model on the cover of American Vogue). They and other top models reflected on their experiences of working with the beloved Chicago based photographer, exclusively for Models.com.
I last visited Victor in 2014. This is a portrait from his book Skrebneski Portraits A Matter of Record, 1978. He was one of my most trusted and dearest friends and I have an emptiness in my heart at the news of his death. We worked together for 40 years and I never saw him raise his voice or lose his temper. He refused to take any picture he did not like, much to the chagrin of many clients, but it was the reason I could totally trust him as a model. I will always respect and love him.
Beverly Johnson selfie from Instagram
I always loved going to Chicago to work with him… He was always so kind and really appreciative of the models and the work we created together..
He was truly was one of a kind .. There are not many legendary fashion photographers who were important enough to physically live & work outside of the fashion bubble. Victor did… We came to him!!
Angie Everheart selfie from Instagram
Being a 14 year old Ohio kid, I went to Chicago with my mother as Victor Skrebneski was THE photographer to work with in the 80’s and 90’s. My mother, who took me around to all of my ‘go see’ appointments was the perfect companion except when I went to see Victor Skrebneski for the first time. I wanted to show my independence, so I asked my mom to wait down the block so he wouldn’t see me walking in with my mom! Though I had very little experience, being a very young red head from Ohio, I landed the job!! The studio was immaculate, the front waiting area in pristine ivory leather, and an intimidating front office woman named Jovanna. The atmosphere was always one of quiet and strict professionalism.
I will never forget the first day I arrived with my model bag in tow. All my own makeup and hair accessories on the counter, when Victor came into the dressing room and gently guided me on how to put on makeup for his specific lighting. It was amazing! He had one key light positioned overhead, so chin up ladies and stay still! He would then have Dennis come in to the studio and style us to perfection, telling us “don’t move”! Telling a 14 yr old red head to not move, is like telling a bull in a china shop to sit still…not in their nature. Victor had the patience. I learned my best angles, how to make an ugly dress look pretty, and for those hours in a day- to stand still. One photoshoot was furs… to date one of my worst and most painful days. He had me standing for what seemed like hours with my arms stretched out, straight to my sides and draped on each arm were two or three fur coats. Ouch!! Dennis would come in and comb the coat and Victor would tell me where he wanted my face- always chin up to the light. Every time I moved, the coats would fall, needless to say it was an amazing photo, but a painful yet funny memory.
I have so many wonderful stories and memories flooding back from my time with Victor and his loyal crew. He was, in a way, my father/photographer. He jump started my career and guided me and groomed all the models that worked for him. Cindy Crawford, Joan Severance, Willow Bay … and this 14yr old red head from Ohio to name a few.
Rest in Peace, Victor, you will be remembered for your amazing photos, cute smile and impeccable style. It was a privilege to work with you.
I was a young girl in my late teens when I first walked into your studio.
I was so nervous and out of my mind. Everyone knew your name. You were an ICON! I knew this was going to be a game changer for me. I paid close attention to everything. I watched you. You were always put together and so handsome. It made me want to step up my fashion game every time I went to the studio. OLD school, the BEST school you made me want to always be at my best.
I learned so much from you. On set, you showed me how to wear a garment and sell it. You taught me how to be still and look for my light. You fixed my hair with your own hands on set. You molded our garments into position until everything was perfect. Then, you walked to your camera and it was magic. I can tell you this, not many photographers do that. These things I have carried with me throughout the years.
I worked with you from my late teens to my 40’s. How many girls can say that?! I owe a lot to the longevity of my career to you. I was so lucky to have you as a mentor. Forever grateful am I. To have worked with VICTOR SKREBNESKI is a privilege! Much love and respect.
Sadness has now overcome our city with the loss of our legend.
My heart is broken.
Image courtesy of Tara Shannon
THE MASTER OF LIGHT
I don’t think most people really understand how crucial lighting is for models. It is as important a medium as paint is to the artist.
Viktor Skrebneski had a profound skill in that he was able to paint using light. He fused classic Hollywood lighting with Old Master portraiture and brought this mashup to the world of advertising. He built a bridge between product and art.
There is one mindset of taking photographs for the intent of selling a product. This is called advertising.
Viktor took photography to such a level of beauty that his images evoked an emotional desire so deep you yearned for that product. This is called art.
Look at the photo above for the Town and Country Magazine story on precious jewels. It’s a double page spread. For a jewelry story? That’s unheard of. Jewelry is always shot in tightly cropped layouts designed to get in as many products as possible.
When I was on the set and he was ready to shoot, I asked Viktor what he wanted. He then gave me a direction that I had never heard in my career.
Hearing it, I understood what made him an artist, and that in this one statement, he was holding out his hand to help me become one, too.
He said, “Show me how you feel.”
I knew technically how to show the earrings, how to show the necklace, how to show the bracelets and the ring and squeeze it into a tight little visual box. In fact, I was good at that.
When he asked me to show him how I felt, I wasn’t seeing that tightly cropped layout in my head anymore. I was looking down at the ring on my hand.
That ring of almost 40 carats of stunning blue sapphires. The stone exploding into thousands of prisms, so many prisms it made me turn the ring around face up in my palm, so I could stretch out my arm, lift my head and feel all that velvety, gorgeous light pour down over me like warm rain.
That is how we got this shot. This is how I learned to define myself as an artist. It’s a feeling. My feeling.
Oh Viktor. Thank you for bridging what needed to be seen with what needed to be felt. The world will miss your light…
Image courtesy of Lara Harris
Victor Skrebneski really gave me my start as a model. I’m from Chicago, and when I first started, the summer of 1982, he put me on hold (or “on ice” as we called it back then) for the whole summer. Because he was really the king of fashion photography in Chicago, being chosen to be one of Victor’s girls really anointed me as a model. I knew nothing about the work, and he taught me everything: from how far eyeliner should extend underneath my pupil, to how to position my hands, to how grape juice had fewer calories than orange. His studio was legendary: Jovanna and Dennis ran it and it was a tight ship. And, even though I was a local model, I was able to work with New York girls who would fly in to work for various clients, especially I Magnin. Victor was always a gentleman, a great professional and the first photographer I worked with who was a true artist. It was an incredible training ground for me. I left Chicago for Paris after that summer, and a year later, New York. Then Victor would fly me in for direct bookings (which I always loved because I could see my family) and it was like the whole thing had come full circle. I will never forget him or my experience modeling for him, because it really changed my life and started my career.
.Image of Victor and Carmen, courtesy of Carmen dell’Orefice
Victor Skrebeneski gentleman photographer, though quite reserved, and small in stature, was one of the GIANTS in his field in the century he lived.
Most fortunate, beside working with Victor many times over the decades, was his enduring friendship, which l shall treasure as long as I live.