Keeping Amused, with Leah Zeldes

'Skrebneski: The First Fifty Years'

Photographer Victor Skrebneski is taking visitors through the exhibition of his work at the Museum of Contemporary Photography.

The 50-year retrospective features 162 photos that Skrebneski picked out and hung himself, an which he has donated to the museum's permanent collection. Principally known as a fashion photographer, his career launched by work for Marshall Field's and Estee Lauder, the Chicago-reared and educated Skrebneski has spent most of the past half-century recording the beautiful and the famous.

But his are no glossy, static product shots.

He points to an image containing the characteristic Skrebneski blur. "I always have to have something moving," he says. Then, shrugging at the exigencies of commercial photography: "Or, at least, something has to move for me to enjoy doing it."

Skrebneski himself certainly seems to like moving. Pixieish, he almost dances around the gallery, beaming. "This is very sad for me, this day," he says, smiling. "Because I'll never be this happy again.

"I think that way."

Skrebneski, 70, has put some of his earliest work into this exhibit, including photos of his sister and of a high-school friend, taken in 1949. It's irresistible to speculate about the photographer from the works he has chosen.

"I like anatomy," he comments, pausing beside a nude. "If parents were to teach their children they're something beautiful, instead of to hide themselves, I don't think we'd have all the problems we have today."

Very beautiful, the nudes he's chosen are mainly of men and of couples, rather than of women alone. Even in the twosomes, the women are almost props, such as in a 1970 shot of actor Helmut Berger, coiled around an unidentified nude woman whose head has been cropped from the picture.

The solo women often are foils for fabric, from the "Givenchy Red"-draped figure posed like a crimson angel, to the stooping, black-clad girl who is the symbol for the exhibition, one bare arm reaching out, as if she were emerging from an ebony cocoon.

Skrebneski is a portraitist, and most of these photos, as you'd expect, are of people: Liza Minelli, hair slicked backed so you can concentrate on the fullness of her lips and the irregularity of her features (her ears and eyes don't line up); Gary Sinise, pulling up his shirt, one hand in his pants; Muddy Waters, wet and bare-chested, gripping a frog.

When there are street scenes, however, nearly all are of locations in Europe. It's curious that a photographer who has spent much of his working life in a studio on LaSalle Street wouldn't have chosen some images of his hometown for a collection of his life's work.

"I love being a Chicagoan," Skrebneski says. So one can't help but wonder whether he didn't take any pictures of the city, or simply didn't like them well enough to exhibit here.

Not that he's a perfectionist. He shows a photo of a couple dancing at Lake Como in Italy. The film was accidentally dropped on the ground and damaged. Most photographers would have given up on that roll. Not only did Skrebneski print it, but he chose that image as one of his representative photos. "There's all sorts of stuff on it," he says, pointing. "I think that's a mosquito. I like that."

And the next 50 years? Skrebneski talks enthusiastically about moving away from the carefully posed glamour shots. "It's not that I dislike formality," he says. "I love formality -- but I like informality."

He thinks that way.

"Skrebneski: The First Fifty Years" continues at The Museum of Contemporary Photography, Columbia College Chicago, 600 S. Michigan Ave., through Nov. 6. Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Wednesdays and Fridays, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursdays, and noon to 5 p.m. Saturdays. Additionally, Skrebneski will autograph copies of his newly published book of the same name (Edition Stemmle, ISBN 3-908163-05-6), at the museum from 6 to 8 p.m. on Nov. 4. Admission is free. Call (312) 663-5554 for details.

Questions, comments or complaints? Please reference the story and paper's name in the subject line of your message. Thanks.