Victor Skrebneski lit the planes and curves of faces like a cinematographer from Hollywood’s golden age.
He made everyone look as beautiful as if they were in a film noir.
The Chicago-based, universally acclaimed photographer died Saturday of cancer, according to friends and business associates. He was 90 and had been a photographer for 70 years.
Mr. Skrebneski shot supermodels and supermodels in the making. He helped discover Jennifer Beals and a teenaged Cindy Crawford, and he featured a young Paulina Porizkova in Estee Lauder ads.
His posters for the Chicago International Film Festival made the Hog Butcher for the World look like a gathering of glamazons. Glistening with studio sweat on skin, they featured Iman, Anna Nicole Smith, Crawford and Dolph Lundgren. Usually in torn T-shirts — or less.
“He was my first mentor and taught me so much about the art of modeling and photography,” Crawford said. “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.”
“In 1966, I asked Victor to help make the Chicago Film Festival sexy. He ended up putting it on the map,” festival founder Michael Kutza said.
“His stunning work was celebrated worldwide, but he always made Chicago home. A champion of our culture scene — @chifilmfest wouldn’t be what it is without him,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said in a tweet.
“Thank you Victor for showing this South Side girl how big the world could be...and that the journey must start from the inside,” tweeted Beals, who went from model to movie star. “Your kindness, your elegance and your genius will never be forgotten.”
His fashion shoots were sumptuous. One, with Carole Bouquet lazing in Coco Chanel’s Paris apartment, glows with shades of scarlet and persimmon.
Mr. Skrebneski’s portraits in black and white were never just that. They had 1,000 shades of black, white, silver and gray.
His vast portfolio included artists, music legends, literary lions, religious leaders, civil rights figures, old Hollywood. When he set up his studio to shoot a Dewar’s Scotch ad with Orson Welles, he told Fox 32 reporter Sylvia Perez Welles examined the lighting and camera position and told Mr. Skrebneski: “Ok maestro, let’s begin.”
He shot Welles in a black turtleneck. “Everybody wanted to be photographed in the black turtleneck – they wanted the one that Orson Welles wore,” Mr. Skrebneski said in an interview with Women’s Wear Daily.
He captured images of Bette Davis, Audrey Hepburn, Raquel Welch, director Francois Truffaut and, in one picture, three seasons of Hollywood carousers: Walter Huston, John Ford in eyepatch and Dennis Hopper in full hippie regalia.
And he drew major notice in 1967 when he photographed Vanessa Redgrave, hair streaming like a Valkyrie, shortly after she starred in “Blow-Up.”
He shot Iman and her husband David Bowie. “Every picture I photographed him in, he’s naked,” Mr. Skrebneski told WWD. “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.”
Mr. Skrebneski photographed Cardinal Joseph Bernardin; President Barack and Michelle Obama; Andy Warhol; Oprah Winfrey; Truman Capote, a sleek Diana Ross; and a shirtless Muddy Waters holding a bullfrog.
There were fashion ads for Chanel, Ralph Lauren, Marshall Field’s, Saks. “Victor was groundbreaking in the area of advertising,” said publicist Dori Wilson, whom he photographed as a model.
“He was the first time ever that Estee Lauder used a photographer. She had used drawings up to that point,” said his friend, interior designer Bruce Gregga.
A favorite model, Christina Kemper – now wife of Ronald J. Gidwitz, the U.S. ambassador to Belgium – spoke of his economy of motion in a 1974 story in the Chicago Daily News. “He puts you right at ease, and he doesn’t shoot a lot of film. Two rolls and that’s it,” she said.
“He had an ability to read your personality, read your character, read your mind, ” Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas said. “Then he would photograph you, and the photograph captured who you really were.”
This year he published his 18th book, “Skrebneski Documented.”
“Victor was just a genius,” said socialite and novelist Sugar Rautbord, whom he photographed for her book jackets. In his pictures, “He was creating his own play.”
Young Victor grew up in a row house at Grand and Rush in a Russian-Polish family. His father Joseph was a machinist with International Harvester while his mother Anna kept house, he said in a 2000 interview with the Sun-Times.
His early artistic leanings were encouraged by an actress aunt. She suggested he collect pictures for a childhood scrapbook.
As a boy, “I found my first camera on a bench at Lake Shore playground. ... I took it inside and gave it to the lady at the desk,” he once told the Sun-Times. “She said if no one picked it up in a week, I could have it.”
When no one claimed it, he started shooting photos.
“Ever since he was small, that’s all he wanted to do,” said restaurateur Joey Mondelli, an owner of La Scarola, where Mr. Skrebneski often dined.
He tried his hand at painting as a youth. “His love of art, and being an artist shows up in his photographs,” which resemble sculpture and sometimes cubist paintings, said his friend, painter Stephen Rybka. Mr. Skrebneski’s friends included the artists Erte, Alberto Giacometti and César Domela.
He attended Waller High School, the School of the Art Institute and the Institute of Design at the Illinois Institute of Technology, according to the Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College Chicago.
“I love it here ... Chicago is an anchor for me,” he told the Sun-Times in 2014.
“We don’t have many celebrities in Chicago, not as many things to look at as in New York, just some very rich people who live very well and do it very quietly,” he told the Daily News. “Who needs all that fuss? I know that in some New York restaurants, it’s important for status to sit in the front room, but I like the back room, where you can look out and see all the people.”
A private memorial is planned at a later date.