Victor Skrebneski, whose striking photographs of celebrities and models including Cindy Crawford, Bette Davis and Orson Welles were a fixture of advertising campaigns and gallery shows for more than a half-century, died on April 4 in Chicago. He was 90.
The cause was cancer, his friend Stephen Rybka said through a spokeswoman.
Mr. Skrebneski first became well known for photographing a print advertising campaign for Estée Lauder, a contract he landed in 1962. “The Estée Lauder woman,” as the campaign came to be known, ran for years in glossy magazines and featured a series of models shot by Mr. Skrebneski, often in settings that suggested old money and refined taste.
The campaign made such an impression that the company received thousands of inquiries from people who wanted to know where to get the tablecloth or the vase seen in a particular image. One woman said she was redecorating her living room to match one in an ad and asked if the company could photograph the other half of the room so that she could proceed.
Mr. Skrebneski sometimes used rooms in his own house, on Chicago’s North Side, for those pictures. In fact, he told The New York Times in 1978, he used them so often that the head of Estée Lauder’s advertising agency told him that he should consider redecorating.
While building his advertising portfolio, Mr. Skrebneski began drawing acclaim for his celebrity portraits. The black turtleneck became his signature: He photographed Orson Welles, Bette Davis, Andy Warhol and many others wearing one.
“Everybody wanted to be photographed in the black turtleneck,” he recalled in 2019 during an event in Chicago in which he was being honored. “They wanted the one that Orson Welles wore.” (The Welles picture, taken in 1970, was the first of the series; when he photographed Ms. Davis the next year, he gave her a turtleneck that was several sizes smaller.)
Other celebrities and models in his pictures were not wearing a turtleneck or anything else. One was David Bowie.
“He absolutely loved being naked,” Mr. Skrebneski said. “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.”
One of his earliest celebrity photographs, from 1967, was of Vanessa Redgrave, her arms crossed over her bare breasts. A 1989 exhibition of his work at the newly opened Betty Rymer Gallery in Chicago featured far less recognizable bodies.
“The nudes have no heads, no arms,” Mr. Skrebneski told The Chicago Tribune. “I don’t have to worry about makeup and expression. It certainly is sparse, the most essential thing I could do.”
Victor Paul Skrebneski was born on Dec. 17, 1929, in Chicago to Joseph and Anna Skrebneski. His mother owned a restaurant, and his father worked in the steel industry.
Mr. Skrebneski often told the story of his introduction to photography: While playing in a park around the age of 7, he found an abandoned camera, which he dutifully turned over to the park attendant.
“I took it inside and gave it to the lady at the desk,” he told The Chicago Sun-Times in 2000. “She said if no one picked it up in a week, I could have it.”
No one did.
In the beginning he was his own teacher, which, he said years later, contributed to the blurry spontaneity of some of his favorite pictures.
“No one told me when I was 7 years old that I shouldn’t shake the camera,” he said. “That was the beginning, and I liked the way it looked, and I didn’t know there was any other way to look.”
He did eventually get some instruction, studying at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Illinois Institute of Technology before opening his own studio in Chicago in 1952.
He later toyed with the idea of relocating to New York, but just as he was considering it, he got an assignment from Marshall Field’s, the Chicago department store, and then another, and another. He stayed in his hometown, though in his long career he shot pictures all over the world and developed a particular affinity for Paris.
Mr. Skrebneski had his critics. Alan Artner, reviewing a 1999 retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in The Tribune, said his techniques were borrowed — the black turtlenecks, he noted, were reminiscent of Richard Avedon’s pictures of the Beatles — and called the work on display “the visual equivalent of name-dropping and gossip.”
Mr. Skrebneski’s relationship with the Estée Lauder company lasted 37 years. In 1987 he published “Five Beautiful Women,” one of his many books, with photographs of five of the models who had been “the Estée Lauder woman” over the years: Phyllis Connor, Karen Harris, Karen Graham, Shaun Casey and Willow Bay.
Cindy Crawford worked with him in the 1980s while still a teenager and credited him as a mentor, though they had a long falling out after she left in the middle of a catalog shoot to take an assignment out of town. The rift eventually healed; in 2016 she presented him with a Fifth Star Award, a local honor in Chicago.
Mr. Skrebneski, who leaves no immediate survivors, was also known for his attention-getting posters for the Chicago International Film Festival, which often featured models wearing few if any clothes.
“In 1966, I asked Victor to help make the Chicago Film Festival sexy,” Michael Kutza, founder of the festival, said in a statement. “He ended up putting it on the map.”
Mr. Skrebneski played an integral part in refurbishing the park around Chicago’s landmark water tower two decades ago.
“The mayor called and asked if I would do it, and I said certainly,” he said in a 2010 interview on “The Friday Night Show” on WTTW, Chicago’s PBS outlet. “I didn’t realize that I had to get money to do it. And I’ve never asked for money from anyone before.”
The first person he called, he said, was Cindy Pritzker, a member of a well-heeled Chicago family.
“I said, ‘Cindy, how do I raise money to get this thing going?’” he recalled. “And she said, ‘Anybody who can see the water tower should pay you.’ And I said, ‘Can you see it from where you live?’ She said, ‘Yep — uh-oh.’ So she gave me money right away.”
By Neil Genzlinger