Glass meets … Victor Skrebneski, one of fashion’s greatest photographers

Victor Skrebneski – One of fashion’s greatest photographers recounts a life in pursuit of art

VICTOR Skrebneski is part of the founding generation of fashion photography as we know it today. A peer of previous masters of the craft interviewed by Glass, such as Melvin Sokolsky, Albert Watson and Bill Silano, Skrebneski was one of the generation that redefined the visual world in the wake of WWII. Through experimentalism, boundary-pushing, and unceasing wit and creativity in his images, Skrebneski has stayed at the top of his game for over six decades. His portfolio is a who’s who of the great and the good from the second half of the twentieth century: Andy Warhol, Audrey Hepburn, Orson Welles, Vanessa Redgrave, Bette Davis, David Bowie, Iman, John Malkovich, Cindy Crawford, Dennis Hopper, Fred Astaire and Diana Ross are but a small few of his subjects.

His commercial clients include some of the most successful brands in the world, including Chanel, Ralph Lauren, Givenchy, Saks Fifth Avenue and Estée Lauder – for whom he was the exclusive photographer for 27 years. He has been honoured with 76 solo and group gallery exhibitions, 22 international awards and accolades, and has published 18 books. In short, he is a hugely accomplished individual.

Prior to our interview, I had sent over a list of questions, mostly based around this incredible life, how he had started, where his love of imagery stemmed from, his favourite muses, his most memorable photo shoots and the like. But upon meeting at his impressive Chicago studio, he stops me dead in my tracks when he says flatly, “So many of these questions are about the past, which is a memory for me. I don’t dwell on the past.” I flounder; the lynchpin of my interview has just disintegrated.

“And so it takes a little while,” he continues, “for me to remember what the question is all about.” I take measured breaths.

“So I thought what I’d do is I took some notes in my memory and thought I’d just pull it all together instead of answering your question with a one word answer, you know that sort of thing, is that okay?” My heart soars with relief.

I thought maybe it could be a movie.” He laughs warmly and the story telling begins.

“My father always took me and my sister for walks, and one day we were… do you know Chicago at all?” I answer no. “Well one day we were in the Lake Shore Drive playground when it started to rain, so we all ran to the club house, and on the way I picked up a black box left on a bench and gave it to the lady behind the desk. She thanked me and said that if no-one’s claimed it within two weeks, it was mine. It turned out to be a camera. I think I was eight or nine. So I thought that was rather strange, to start my life off like that.

Then my mother’s friend lived with us. She was in a coach-house behind our house and she was an artist, painter and an actor – this was in the ‘40s. When I was in school I couldn’t wait to get out, to go to her house to learn more about art. She taught me how to paint, how to sculpt, how to photograph.

I was photographing my sister, and model composites, I think it was about 1948, ’49 or ’50, and I rented a two-floor coach-house, right on the South Boulevard, and I’m still there, but the building is three times larger. I added on to it many times, and then when I was studying at Moholy-Nagy’s (Lázló Moholy-Nagy’s Institute of Design in Chicago), Harry Callahan (he was a photographer, and a teacher there) saw my photographs and said he had never seen cropping like this. He said, “Go to New York, do editorials for magazines.”

At that time I was photographing advertisements for Marshall Field and Company, and they liked my work so much that they gave me an abundance of work every day. But anyway, I went to New York, and photographed for Esquire magazine, I think, and Shar Magazine, and then I returned to Chicago to pack up my things to go to New York, when I thought, “What I do in Chicago, I would doing the same thing in New York, so why go to New York?” So I stayed here. Then I think my career started by not photographing Barbra Streisand – timing is everything.

The Pump Room, Chicago, 1953The Pump Room, Chicago, 1953 by Victor Skrebneski

Did you say it started by not photographing her?
Yeah, she was performing in Chicago and I was hired by a Warner Brothers agent, Frank Casey, to photograph their stars, but I was in Hollywood when she was scheduled to be photographed by me. She is one of the three women that I would absolutely die to photograph; Barbra Streisand, Coco Chanel and Kate Hepburn, those are the three that got away, which is really sad for me. Vanessa Redgrave – I’m sure you know who that is – she became my icon.

I did a huge photograph of her, and Warner Brothers loved it so they put it everywhere, and one day when I was in Rome, the newspaper place had her on the cover of their newspaper, and I thought something had happened to her so I asked the dealer, why is she on your cover? And he said, “Why? She’s beautiful, look at her, she’s gorgeous, that’s what we do here!” So that took care of that real fast.

The other women and men that I photographed were Orson Welles, Bette Davis, Truman Capote, Andy Warhol, and my closest friends are still, then, and now, Hubert de Givenchy, Frank Zachary – he was Editor-in-Chief at Town & Country magazine – was absolutely wonderful to me; he gave me work every day practically. He let me do whatever I wanted and he said, “Just go crazy, do whatever you want”, and I don’t know if you know too much about Town & Country magazine, but it usually stayed very quiet, so I went in and it turned out to look like Vanity Fair or Playboy or something like that, because I did a lot of jewellery for them, and I’d always do it on nudes, and after doing it on nudes we’d paint the nudes, and it just went on and on and on, which is just wonderful.

The other people I shot, we’re still friends, well Bette Davis has passed now but she used to call me when she was going to New York, and say, “Come to New York, we’ll have dinner tomorrow night”, so I’d fly into New York and we’d do that. Ralph Lauren, I did a lot of work for Ralph Lauren, and Thierry Despont, do you know who that is? He is an architect, designer of buildings, opera houses, everything, he is just absolutely a wonderful, wonderful man, and then Ungaro, Emanuel Ungaro, and Cindy Crawford and I are very good friends.

The other good friends were Estée Lauder – oh, Arie Kopelman do you know who that is? He was the agent or manager for Chanel. He was very kind to me. I saw him when I was getting off the plane in New York. He was getting on the plane and I yelled across the room, “Arie! Arie! Give me a job!” and the next thing I knew, two or three weeks later, I was shooting for Chanel, which made me very happy.

Other good friends are Mayor Daley of Chicago – he asked me to design the Water Tower Park, which I did, which was a wonderful, wonderful experience – and Michael Kutza, he’s the founder of the Chicago International Film Festival – I drew all the posters for him for 50 years, it’s now 51. Tony Jones, he’s the president emeritus at the Art Institute of Chicago, he wrote all the essays in the introductions to my books. I think that’s about it, that’s where I am now. I also did a lot of, which I love doing, designing interiors.

At one time I was, as they say to today, ‘hot’. I did a brand new fashion store for women called The Garage. I did Ultimo, it’s a fashion store in Oak Street, and then a shoe store on Michigan Avenue, I loved doing that one; it was all white and clear plastic – I made furniture out of plastics – it was just a great experience. So that’s where I am today, that’s my story. Is there anything I left out for you?

Carmen and Dovima, 1955Carmen and Dovima, 1955 by Victor Skrebneski

Well you had so many talents; art, design, but photography seems to have been the main passion of your life. What was it about taking photos that you liked so much?
It was just something that I did and it was easy to do for me. It was, I guess, putting my art together, my design together, everything, because that’s what photographs are. When Editors credit me and say, “Photography by”, I try to explain to them that photography is the process of producing an image called a photograph, so what they should do is just put “Skrebneski Photograph” – make it very simple – so a lot of them did that, and I think they’re starting to do that a lot now.

Was there anyone that you really admired or who pushed you to go further with your pictures, either through being a mentor or a competitor?
I’ve never felt competitive with anyone, and I really didn’t mind anybody else’s business (he laughs). I guess I was working too much. But my photography idol is André Kertész (a Hungarian photographer born in 1894 who broke boundaries with his unorthodox angles, unusual cropping and distorted views, he is now regarded as one of the pioneers of photojournalism and was part of the ‘Hungarian new wave’ of artists and photographers). I liked his work an awful lot, and I still do.

Did you ever meet him?
No, I never did. But I’m inspired by art. Most of my admiration went towards the Cubists. I loved Cubist paintings, so that’s what I was really concerned with most of my life.

Fred Astaire, 1968Fred Astaire, 1968 by Victor Skrebneski

Which period did you find to be the most creative in terms of photography and fashion photography?
I’ve never thought about it. I just kept doing what I did.

A lot of the greats that we’ve interviewed previously, like Melvin Sokolsky and Bill Silano, have said that these days there’s just no creativity any more – that everything is so commercially driven. Has that been your experience of it, or do you feel that there is just as much creativity as there has ever been?
I think it’s just the couture that’s different, and it’s not new. If you love old movies, you will see that all the ‘not new’ clothes of today are copied from the early movies. Film stars like William Powell and Myrna Loy had some of the most beautiful clothes ever photographed in film. So I think today the clothing looks old, but no one does all the research to see what it was like, so it’s like it’s whatever you can get away with. There’s a quote from Andy Warhol that I love, “Art is whatever you can get away with.” I think that’s a fabulous quote.

Givenchy couture photographed in the grand salon of the home of close friend Hubert de GivenchyGivenchy couture photographed in the grand salon of the home of close friend
Hubert de Givenchy by Victor Skrebneski

In terms of clothes though, do you think there’s anywhere else to go? Because there’s only so many times you can reinvent the wheel.
Yes, I agree with you. I do a lot of student conversation and they come to the studio or I go to the Art Institute, and to me this is a perfect example of what I think today is about. I had about 25 design students here that just sat on the floor and I told them that I don’t ask questions because you can’t tell a student anything, because they already know it, and they know everything, so there’s no reason to talk. So what I do is I have a listening process. So I said, “I need questions, so would anybody ask a question to start this off?”

And a young man sitting on the floor in front raised his hand and said, “How do you become famous real fast?” And that’s it. That’s what it’s all about, I think. And when you see some of the work that students do, they are just absolutely outrageous and nobody would ever buy it to wear outside, or to wear at all. It’s just their dream I guess, I’m not sure.

Audrey Hepburn, 1967Audrey Hepburn, 1967 by Victor Skrebneski

It seems that fame is the main objective these days.
Yeah, I guess it’s fun for everybody. I don’t take it all that seriously any more. I used to be very serious about it, and today it’s amusing. I think everything that happens today is amusing.

You’ve worked with so many icons – what qualities did these individuals possess that made them so special?
You know what they do and how they act, and they’re special to begin with, right there. They are loyal – when they have a friend they stick to it, like Bette Davis. Hubert de Givenchy is my best friend in Europe; we talk on the phone quite often. That’s what they are, special friends.

Givenchy Red, 1991Givenchy Red, 1991 by Victor Skrebneski

But what qualities set them apart from normal people, that they become such superstars?
But don’t you think that’s normal for them?

I guess it is. But do you think they are just born with these innate qualities?
As you go through life, you learn, quickly if you want to, and you learn all the things you should know, and a lot of the things you shouldn’t know. And that gives you the right to say what you do.

Andy Warhol, 1972Andy Warhol, 1972 by Victor Skrebneski

What have been your most memorable photo shoots?
I’ll answer that question by saying the next one.

Who has imparted the most wisdom upon you?
Everyone. I learn from everyone. I studied art and I do a lot of homage in my photographs. The ones that I do the most homage to are Magritte, Man Ray, Salvador Dalí, Giacometti – Alberto and Diego – Cy Twombly, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Picasso, Jean-Michel Frank – an interior and furniture designer – and Chanel and Hubert de Givenchy. Those are my greatest influencers. I learnt from them how to see, and the space that you’re allotted, the placement of the figures in your images, the proportions etc. I learnt from them how to design photographs.

Vanessa Redgrave,1967Vanessa Redgrave 1967 by Victor Skrebneski

And did you learn from their work or from knowing them personally?
Both.

What’s the most important thing you would pass on to a younger photographer today?
Work. That’s all, just work, work, work.

Iman and David Bowie, 1991Iman and David Bowie, 1991 Victor Skrebneski

And what’s the most important lesson that you have learnt?
To stay alive (he laughs).

You seem to be doing quite well at that.
Well, it’s taken a long time.

by Nicola Kavanagh

From Glass, Issue 25. To make sure you never miss out on a copy of Glass, please visit here to subscribe.