Edit Module
Edit Module
Edit Module
Edit Module
Back Room

Victor Skrebneski

The famed portrait photographer, 87, on shooting Bowie and advising Daley

Illustration by Stavros Damos
Illustration: Stavros Damos

Saying no to somebody for a commission or portrait—it’s not me being stuck up. It’s just a no. That’s all. Visually it doesn’t work for me. I can’t do anything for them.

I like designing more than I do photographing. When I take a photograph, I crop it and turn it and move it and change the coloring. I do black and white mostly, so you can make it real bright or real dark. The photo of Iman and David Bowie—it’s a little on the dark side because I wanted to bring out her beauty. I’ve always been guided by my love of beauty.

David would come in maybe twice a year, and I’d photograph him. He always wanted to be nude. Because everybody else wanted to dress him in costumes. He just wanted to get rid of all that stuff and be himself.

When my parents came here from Poland, they went where everybody else they knew went—Milwaukee Avenue. About three days after they got there, my mother said, “I can’t stand it here. Why did we come? All of these Polish people—I feel like I’m back in Poland.” So she went out and bought a building on Rush and Grand, right off Michigan Avenue. Now it’s the site of Nordstrom’s. She should’ve held off on selling that one.

 

Every other Sunday my mother took me downtown to a movie. But it had to be a sad movie so she could cry. Always. Every movie.

Advertisement

 

I have no accent. When I was in kindergarten, I was told by the nuns at Holy Name Cathedral that I’m in America now: I cannot speak anything but American English.

The ’70s happened. And that was it. You warped into it. You knew exactly what to do.

I always wanted to work for Chanel. One day, I was getting off the Concorde and the guy who did everything for Chanel was getting on the Concorde. And I yelled at him, “Ari! Give me a job!” Two weeks later he called.

If it’s on your mind, you just say it and get it over with. It works when it’s nicely done.

When looking for beauty in your subjects, you’re looking for something they don’t necessarily even know is there. In portraits, some immediately think they know what to do, how to face the camera, head up or head down. So I say, “OK. Just get used to that, and we’ll move the light around.” It makes them comfortable. It’s all in the lighting anyway.

There was this wonderful icicle. I just loved the way it looked. I never took a photograph of it. I just stood and looked at it. There are things you just want to keep to yourself.

Rich Daley and I were good friends. I used to go to his City Hall office once a month and we’d sit and talk for 15, 20 minutes. He just had to know what was going on in the city. One time he called me and said, “Come on, you have to come over right away. We’re going to Grant Park.” So I dropped everything, got in the car. You know where the balustrades are? He’s there at the entrance looking at the grass. He said, “What are we gonna do about that?” I said, “What?” “The yellow spot there.” I said, “What yellow spot?” A dog had peed there. He said, “We have to do something about it.” I said, “What we’ll do is cut a square, get rid of that, and put a new piece of grass in. You understand?” He said, “Yes. That’s it?”

The choices I’ve made with my work—they’re the only ones I had. It’s all about being decisive. Instantly and repeatedly and innately. I don’t think about: Should I do it or shouldn’t I? I just do it. That’s true in my life, too.

Share

Edit Module
Edit Module
Submit your comment

Comments are moderated. We review them in an effort to remove foul language, commercial messages, abuse, and irrelevancies.