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Victor Skrebneski's Demons

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By Bill Stamets

Victor Skrebneski's surrounded by some of the 162 prints he's just donated to the Museum of Contemporary Photography, which is currently exhibiting a 50-year retrospective of his work. There are photos of sweatered celebrities and tawny nudes and exotic locales. Yet the most dramatic image he remembers made him freak out on the first day of kindergarten at Holy Name Cathedral.

"Here's this picture of Jesus Christ with thorns and blood coming down that opened and closed its eyes," he recalls. "I let out a whoop and holler, and I ran over to my mother and told her I was scared to death. So she yelled at the nun: 'How can you do that? Take that picture off the wall.' You know how mothers are."

The nuns killed his desire to play the piano by whacking his knuckles whenever he hit a wrong note, but his mother nurtured other cultural pursuits. Skrebneski's father, a mechanic for International Harvester, would stay at home while his mother dragged young Victor to the Dearborn movie house on Division. "My mother took me to see Laurence Olivier and what's her name in Wuthering Heights practically every night for weeks. She loved it and schlepped me with her. She cried all the time. I was wiping her tears. As I'm watching her, I'm watching the movie. It was an enjoyable evening."

Later he fell for William Powell and Myrna Loy in the "Thin Man" movies, which may have honed his eye for glamour. "That was the apex of luxe," he says. "The beautiful New York penthouses and skyline and the beautiful clothes and great jewelry and the men always beautifully groomed and dressed. You never saw a bum sleeping on a park bench."

But Skrebneski's real baptism in the arts came from a painter named Dorothy Bates, who rented his family's coach house at Goethe and Dearborn. "She taught me everything I know about art and that started me wanting to be an artist because I painted with her," he says. Thanks to Bates, he won a walk-on part in a WPA production of Elmer Rice's Street Scene at the Great Northern Theatre starring Sylvia Sydney.

Then on a rainy walk by Lake Shore Park he found his first camera. He began to experiment right away. "The first photograph that I recall making as a child is when I left the aperture open and focused on a full-moon night, and as I was doing it I was becoming Jackson Pollock," he says, rhapsodizing in a still boyish tone. "I kept moving the camera. I was so excited about it. When I got the pictures back from the drugstore, it was a moon-pig. It looked just like a pig."

Skrebneski went on to study painting at the School of the Art Institute and design and photography at the Institute of Design. In 1949 he took a short trip to New York, where he was lucky enough to shoot photos for Esquire and Charm magazines. He decided to move permanently to New York and came back home to collect his possessions. Once in Chicago, however, he took a quick assignment for a Marshall Field's fashion ad. That job led to another and then another. Skrebneski was here to stay, developing a reputation for snapping what ARTnews called "almost fiercely reductive portraits."

His trademark style is one of steely precision, sharp focus, and etched shadows. He once told the British Journal of Photography how he prepared female models for a shoot: "The ones I selected for these nude shots were told to follow a special diet for a few days before they were photographed. I didn't want to have any body fat showing--just skin on muscle." He also exerts an unusual level of control over the layout of his work in magazines.

But when he lets go, he embraces blur, harking back to his original pig-moon, and this former altar boy can scare himself with unholy specters. While shooting a series of male nudes inspired by the art of Francis Bacon, Skrebneski caught a model in midair stepping off a box. "He became Satan," he whispers. "His foot turned into a hoof--I'm not kidding you--from the movement, it turned into a hoof. His hair became one big horn. His penis was round, coming back toward him. That was too maniacal, seeing the devil. Absolutely the scariest photograph I've ever done. I have no idea what it is, where it comes from, nothing. Things like that freak me out."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bill Stamets.

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