Famed fashion photographer Victor Skrebneski died on Saturday after a battle of cancer. Though the photographer never moved from his Chicago home base to the glossier fashion capitals, he left behind an enviable career and portfolio that included work for couture brands and of iconic stars.
Skrebneski helped to launch the career of supermodel Cindy Crawford, shot David Bowie and Iman in a series of nude photos shortly before their wedding, lensed some of the most iconic images of Diana Ross at the peak of her career, and helped define the “Estée Lauder woman” in an unparalleled campaign that lasted 15 years. Skrebneski’s portfolio also included advertising images for Chanel, portraits of Orson Welles, Bette Davis, and Andy Warhol and one of Barack and Michelle Obama’s earliest magazine covers.
Skrebneski was born in Chicago in 1929, and attended art school in the area before setting up his own studio in 1959. By 1970, he had started an ambitious advertising project with Estée Lauder. For 15 years he shot the model Karen Graham in black and white against opulent, luxurious settings as the “Estée Lauder woman.” New images appeared in magazines monthly.
Also in the ’70s, he shot Diana Ross in images to promote the film Mahogany and for the artwork for her album Baby It’s Me. They would become some of Ross’s personal favorites. She’d later chose one of the portraits for the cover of her 2002 book Going Back, and continue to work with the photographer throughout the years.
In the ’80s, Skrebneski met a young local model by the name of Cindy Crawford and shot her extensively for various campaigns.
“I didn’t understand anything about taking pictures, but my first mentor was Victor Skrebneski, a great Chicago photographer, old school like the [Irving] Penns and the Avedons, and he really taught me so much about understanding clothes, light, and how to fill the space,” Crawford told W in 2016.
Though, the growth of Crawford’s career put a strain on their working relationship. After she opted to take a 10-day assignment in Chicago in lieu of working with Skrebneski, the pair didn’t talk for 15 years but eventually reunited and remained close.
“Working with Victor was one of the great privileges of my modeling career,” the model wrote on Instagram. “He was my first mentor and taught me so much about the art of modeling and photography. 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.”
Skrebneski was also close with David Bowie and his wife Iman. The rockstar, usually done up in outré fashion, allowed the photographer to shoot him in the nude.
“Every picture I photographed him in, he’s naked,” Skrebneski told WWD last year. “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.”
Skrebneski was remembered widely by those in the fashion industry he had worked with over the years.