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Lighting Up Chicago: The Illuminating Victor Skrebneski

Jane Ammeson talks with the iconic Chicagoan and photographer about the city in which he's always lived.

By JANE AMMESON
    Often referred to as the “Pope of Water Tower Park” for his stewardship of the emerald green strip of land with the crenulated historic water tower, Victor Skrebneski could also be called Chicago’s “Wizard of Light.”  That’s because the dapper and courtly Skrebneski, who has a city street named after him, has been trying to light the beacon atop the Palmolive Building, one of the first high-rises in the world, completed in 1929.
    “Nineteen-thirty was the first time they lit the beacon at the top of the Palmolive Building,” says Skrebneski as we sit in his studio on LaSalle Street, a modern, two-story building with broad and linear rooms, high ceilings, austere simplicity and oversized photographs, most in black-and-white and of the many celebrities that he has photographed over the last half century. “The light [of the beacon] drove all the women crazy because it shone in their apartments, so they shut it down.”
    Skrebneski, a champion of Chicago’s historic architecture, has spent the last nine years trying to rekindle that light.
    “Someone said, ‘But Victor, the birds, when they come, will fly into the light and die,’” says Skrebneski with a dismissive wave of his hand.  “And I said, ‘There is such a thing as a light switch. We can turn it off when the birds come during those three weeks.’”
    And then, in a succinct one-word statement to explain why the
seemingly simple process of getting the beacon to glow again is so difficult, Skrebneski utters a word that sounds more like an expletive than anything else.
    “Committees,” he says, as if that explains it all.
    And maybe it does. At nearly 80, the award-winning Skrebneski is still renowned as one of the world’s most famous photographers. He discovered Cindy Crawford and has shot Karen Graham, Willow Bay and Paulina Porizkova. His unique and iconoclastic approach to photography made him famous, and hanging on the walls of his studio are countless covers of magazines that he’s shot, including a Town & Country cover of Viscountess Jacqueline de Ribes, who is described as the world’s most stylish woman, and a French periodical with a stunning black-and-white photo of Iman and David Bowie.
    But Skrebneski isn’t talking about models, aristocrats or rock stars today.  He wants to praise Bobby Cannatello, who works at the Water Tower Pumping Station and helps Skrebneski with the park.
    “Every time I call him and say, ‘Bobby, black polka dots,’ by the time I get there—which is, like, in three minutes—they’re gone,” says Skrebneski. 
    The “polka dots” are pieces of chewing gum left on the sidewalk, which quickly turn dark as people walk over them.
    How does one become a “pope” of a Chicago park? In Skrebneski’s case, the title was bestowed on him by Mayor Richard M. Daley.
     “I called him one day and said we needed money for the 5,000 white tulips that we plant in each quadrant,” recalls Skrebneski. “And Mayor Daley said, ‘Look, Victor, the park is like the Vatican and you’re the pope, so you get the money. That’s what the pope would do.’”
    So Skrebneski called his friend Cindy Pritzker.
    “I asked her how to raise money, and she said, ‘You just ask, and let me tell you, anyone who can see the park from their window should give you money,’” he says. “So I said, ‘Can you see the park from your window,’ and she said yes. So I told her to give me some money.”
    An interest in all things Chicago is a vital part of who Skrebneski is.  He was born in the city and moved frequently with his parents as his mother exchanged one house for another. 
    “We started on Milwaukee Avenue, where all the Polish people lived,” says Skrebneski.  “But my mother said, ‘Why are we living here, it’s like we’re living back home.’”  
    So the family moved, living on Goethe and Dearborn, Grand Avenue and Rush, Schiller and even on LaSalle for a year in a home that was directly across the street from the studio that he built in 1952, where he still works and lives.
    “When we lived on Grand Avenue and Rush, every night my dad would take us for a walk to the lakeshore,” says Skrebneski.  “That’s how I discovered the Palmolive Building.”
     According to Skrebneski, his mother would always buy homes that had coach houses so her friend, Dorothy Bates, would have a place to live.
     “Dorothy was an actress and artist, and she painted for the WPA,” says Skrebneski, who credits Bates for teaching him about style, art, painting, furniture design and acting.
    The teenage Skrebneski studied both painting and sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago and then attended the Moholy-Nagy Institute of Design. He had also developed an interest in photography after finding a black box camera at Lakeshore Playground when he was seven.  He took photos of his sister, as well as city scenes and showed them to Harry Callahan, considered one of the great innovators of modern photography,  who was teaching photography at the Institute of Design in Chicago. Callahan convinced Skrebneski to show his work to some New York editors, and he was soon shooting photos for magazines such as Esquire. 
    Skrebneski planned to move permanently to New York and came back to Chicago briefly to pack up his stuff.  But those plans changed when Marshall Field’s hired him to do a fashion shoot and then, liking his work, asked him do more.  He was 23, and suddenly, Chicago seemed as exciting as New York. And it was home. Living in the Second City didn’t hamper Skrebneski’s career. In 1962, he became the exclusive photographer for Estée Lauder, a position he held for 27 years. Even now, his fashion work is in demand. He shoots seasonal shots for Ralph Lauren, and these enlarged works hang in all the Ralph Lauren stores in the country. 
     “That’s eight stores and eight photos for the last five years,” says Skrebneski, noting the photos are returned to him after the season.  “They were all over my studio. That’s why I had a sale.”
    But Skrebneski’s work is always evolving. 
    “I move my camera a lot in my photos,” he says. “I love accidents with the camera.  One of my teachers at the Institute of Design used to say our best work is on the ground. I love it, and it’s an escape, too.”
    Skrebneski is about to have two exhibits with work that he describes as completely different than anything he’s ever done before.
    “This is coming out about who I am,” says the dapper Skrebneski, who is dressed in a soft tan-colored cashmere v-neck sweater and khaki pants with brown suede shoes. “I used to paint and sculpt.  Now I’m doing squigglies.”
    That’s his playful way of saying that he’s taken stacks of airmail letters that he exchanged with artist Cy Twombly and created an interesting series of photographs taken of the letters. Their correspondence started because Skrebneski had wanted to buy a Twombly painting and began exchanging letters with the artist, who was living overseas.
    “[Twombly] had sold it, and though he had others, I wanted the one that had been sold,” says Skrebneski. “After 30 years of mail, I realized that I still didn’t have my Twombly.”
Skrebneski created his own “Twombly” by taking the fine and fragile airmail letter paper and cropping it closely, moving around some of the script and changing the contrast until it began to look like Chinese calligraphy. Then, after gessoing the paper, he zoomed in on the writing (or by now squiggles) with his camera. He describes the results, displayed around his studio, as marvelous. 
    “Now I have 21 Twomblys,” he says with his sly sense of humor, before adding, “I’ve always done exhibits, but they’ve always been of people. This is what I should have been doing.”
    Besides expanding his artistic expression, Skrebneski is fighting another battle with those much-despised “committees.”  He is trying to string lights in the triangular Mariana Park at Bellevue, State and Rush Streets. The idea is to have glittery lights, sparkling at night like a park or plaza in Italy.

Published: June 23, 2008
Issue: Summer 2008 Urban Living

Comments

Great Photography Article
Thanks for the tremendous article. As a photographer in Chicago, it's pleasure to see insightful and articulate journalism is still alive.
Shalimar Beekman, May-08-2009
Palmolive Building Photography
Chicago photographers just love to shoot The Palmolive Building. When it's lit up at night, an absolutely amazing site. Thanks for another tremendous piece of writing. This site is the best.
Chicago Photographers Group, Jan-10-2011