A Passionate Eye

In the words of Gleb Derujinsky’s daughter, Andrea, Derujinsky created beautiful, beautiful imagery, of a style that is unique unto itself. “My dad was, I can’t even explain it, one of the dynamic personalities that fitted right into ‘the club’.” That club consisted of some of the most iconic and creative names the fashion industry has ever seen. It included Carmel Snow, legendary Harper’s Bazaar Editor, Diana Vreeland, an even more legendary Editor of Harper’s Bazaar (and later Vogue), and Alexey Brodovitch, the Art Director of Harper’s Bazaar who revolutionised the concept of page design for magazines. Derujinsky was one of the first people to take fashion outside of the studio. He was adventurous and daring and was thus considered something of a maverick.
His peer Melvin Sokolsky, an equally iconic photographer in his own right, said of him, “Gleb Derujinsky is an original, the Indiana Jones of the fashion photographers. He flew his own private plane to exotic places – models and editors in tow. Wow, the stories that came back!” Derujinsky worked with some of the greatest models and fashion editors of the time, and with the help of his daughter and her tireless work to rebuild her father’s archives – he destroyed many of his negatives upon retiring – we have been able to rebuild a snapshot of that remarkable work and speak to the people that helped make his work possible.
Andrea Derujinsky – the daughter
“When my dad came on board he started with Junior Bazaar magazine, a spin-off from Harper’s Bazaar for a younger audience, but then moved on to Harper’s Bazaar. He was a very unique personality: he wasn’t Avedon, he wasn’t those that came before him, but many that came after him wanted to be like him. My father wasn’t just an artist and photographer; he had a lot of things going through his head. His father was the famous sculptor Gleb Derujinsky Sr who was written up in the New York Times every single time he had a show, so my father had a lot to live up to. He also had a lot of other interests. He liked horses and horseback riding, fox hunting, bicycling, race car driving and gliding, so he would often go off in other tangents in other places and find beauty in those things.
“But he was consistent; he spent 18 years with Harper’s Bazaar. It’s funny because his personality was so different and very cultured because of the upbringing he had. His father and his mother were Russian nobility, and I think that was very hard for him to even really comprehend until he became an adult – and up until recently I didn’t get it myself. The Derujinskys were such high nobility that it was a step below royalty – there is even royalty in the family lineage.”
How did your dad get into photography?
He got into it as early as about six. He built his first camera enlarger between six and ten. His father didn’t really think of photography as art; I think that pretty much determined him to do something with it. Then off he went to World War II – he did some photography during that and he took some very horrific, graphic photographs.
Did he go over there as a solider or a photographer?
He became a staff sergeant as his first languages were French and Russian in that order, and he also learnt the piano, and music is a language, and when he was five he learnt English. He went to the war speaking several languages and because of his music background at some point he was asked if he would like to try and learn Morse code. He learnt it in 30 days, so they gave him staff sergeant because he was so proficient.
There are some war stories that are really great that came to me second-hand from some of his friends so they become even more charming because WWII, as horrible as it was – there was a sense of romance in the whole era. And I think he discovered that sense of romance in the travelling. And so when he got back to The States the first thing he did was take a veteran loan and open his first studio in New York City. He hired anybody and everybody under the sun so long as they were good at what they did. He had no prejudice.
He didn’t care what colour you were, what religion you were, he didn’t care about your height or your sex or your preferences, he only cared if they could do their job. And people also kind of like felt him out – as in, what makes him special – and they became a very dynamic bunch of people. He started working with Glamour magazine as early as 1948. I think they started Junior Bazaar in 1945, when it was still a separate magazine – it was later incorporated into the main Harper’s Bazaar as a supplement. And then he met Carmen (Dell’Orefice) and Ruth (Neumann) and that’s when things really started. He was married some time in ‘52 to a model named Sandra Brown, that was a short-lived marriage; and shortly thereafter in ‘54 he met my mother, Ruth.
And she was modelling for him?
Yes. And her story of modelling was really funny because she was going to be a model but she didn’t tell anybody and when she graduated from high school she went straight to the city and saw Eileen Ford (founder of the legendary Ford Model Agency) and she was told she’d never model, have a nice day girlfriend. And then six months later a photograph landed on Eileen’s desk and Eileen said find this girl and bring her in, and it was my mother. Gleb and Ruth did a lot of different photo shoots together but it was the big trip to Paris and the Round-The-World series that were really famous.
So the Round-The-World series was just one long fashion shoot, shot all around the world?
Twenty-eight days around the world. That was when the 707 had just been inaugurated by TWA. And I believe that they then took TWA and flew round the world. My father took the idea from looking at the pages of National Geographic and he saw these beautiful places that people had gone to shoot. And I guess in his mind the only thing missing was a beautiful girl and beautiful clothes. And so he pinpointed all these fabulous places. I believe that simultaneously Vogue was shooting a trip abroad. And because there was a lot of competition between Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, Gleb said take me around the world, I’ll take Ruth, we’re married. So they did and they took Harper’s Bazaar fashion editor Bruce Clarke and Gleb’s assistant Minoru Ooka.
What do you think he was striving to achieve in his photographs?
I look at them all the time and it’s so hard to say. I mean, there’s so much romance in his images that his personality really comes out in them, his sense of adventure, that he loved to do daring things, do something different and be in the moment. In some aspects his photography is documentary, but he didn’t really achieve this style because it was so beautiful and romantic. Each picture was like it was a clip from a movie. You see a picture of Carmen or a picture of my mother, Ruth, in Paris dancing with the butcher and you can almost hear the music. At the beginning, I think his photography was much more documentary style – there’s lots of images I’ve come across that are very graphic and he was very influenced by Alexey Brodovitch.
Did your parents tell you any stories about the shoots that they did together?
The trip to Turkey! It was in 1961, shortly after I was born. When they got there, they were having an issue because my mum wasn’t going to go up the mountain, but they had to because it wasn’t safe at the bottom. So they go up on donkeys loaded down with luggage and clothes, and at some point they can’t take the donkeys any further because the track was so small and steep so they have to get off and walk. The guides don’t speak English and my mother is trying to mime to the guides that she mustn’t die because she has a baby at home. They eventually modelled swimsuits up there!
What do you think it is about your father’s photographs that are so captivating?
I think most of his works were timeless. If you looked at them and didn’t know they were mid-century, most are timeless. Those shots from Paris or Round-The-World could be any model in any attire today if the photographer could capture that. They definitely transcend time.
Nena Thurman – the model
Gleb was seen as very wild, what with shooting outside. How did you find working with him?
He was! I used to work for Norman Parkinson and he was one of the famous people doing that in England, working for Vogue, British Vogue. And then I came to New York and Gleb Derujinsky was one of the more adventuresome photographers. Shooting outdoors you have to have an adventuresome aspect to you, because it’s new and you were working with nature.
Did Gleb challenge you?
Yes, it was challenging to work with him. We had to climb on camels and then before we would ride, he challenged himself to find an exotic background. The trip we went on to Turkey, he had researched a lot ahead of time of course. He tried to find an idea for what he wanted to do because of that. So he went to these places that had statues, ancient statues, and then I had to be hoisted up onto them and all of this. So it was kind of challenging, how to do a fashion photo from the model’s perspective, because it’s very different from shooting indoors – you had to work with the statues, interact with them and your surroundings.
Do you think fashion photography is less creative today than in Gleb’s era?
Yes, it is less creative, but then it is also something to do with what they are working with. I think that there is a certain kind of classic elegance that seems to be hard to find nowadays, we’ll put it that way. These days it is like everything under the kitchen sink and we’ll boost it up and make it look good – I am talking about the fashion itself. You can’t tell the difference between what, in the old days, used to be underwear and today is maybe evening wear or something, if you know what I mean.
Sometimes when I look through fashion magazines nowadays, if I ever do, I don’t often find some really beautiful things. I do find some beautiful things but then I find at least 60 per cent of things quite unwearable and they’re just kind of like statements, you know, and the shoes are just too ugly for words, with the giant platforms. And some things truly look kind of trashy if I may say so.
What was your most memorable shoot with Gleb?
My most memorable shoot with Gleb was actually when we were on top of Nemrud Dagh mountain and we had a very short time to shoot. We shot the camel and we shot a couple of other things up there – and coming up to that mountain – getting to that mountain was like an undertaking because there was no road and people had to actually walk up there and then they spent a very uncomfortable night out in the freezing cold up there, eating some chicken over an open fire at night under the stars.
It was quite amazing really when you look back. I had a cold and Ruth had a cold. So I’ve got that cold and I was not feeling well, which makes it hard, but that particular shooting I think was the most memorable of them, because it was like a big adventure thing. We were trekking up on the mountain, they had boxes and loads that were strapped to donkeys, and everyone was huffing and puffing.
What were the particular qualities that Gleb had and that his work had?
I remember him – you know, when you first met him, you did notice he was a handsome man, he was a rugged handsome man, he was attractive. He was confident of what he wanted and what he was doing. A lot of photographers can be nervous and shy, but Gleb was not like that, Gleb was very confident. He had, like Norman Parkinson did, what I call “the eye”, a very distinctive photographer’s eye with which they are looking at things and they are setting things up, as though they were already looking through the lens. I think if you look at the pictures, the word dramatic comes to mind. His fashion photographs have a great shape and they are very dramatic. They have an architectural structure and that’s what makes them so powerful.
Barbara Slifka – the editor
Do you still keep an eye on fashion photography these days?
I read the magazines – it’s a habit, you don’t get over that. I look at Bazaar and I look at Vogue. I think Bazaar is looking very good these days. When Gleb was working, the pages were more designed; there was more interest in the design, the layouts. You don’t see that any more, it’s kind of slapped together a little these days
.
And do you think that fashion photography has changed? Is it less creative these days?
That’s sort of a tough question, because it’s all creative in a different way. I think a lot of the things they photograph are not done terribly well. They are more interested in the sexual implications, you know, the dresses are lower, they pull the skirts apart to reveal more of the legs, they are more interested in the shock value than we were in those days. I think it’s a different way of looking at things.
And how did you find working with Gleb?
Working with Gleb was fun! He was very interested in the whole page, the layout of the whole page. I mean in other words he loved certain types of background. He was very good in scenery. You know what I mean with full-page scenes? He was very good outdoors, he was really at his best. He was fun, he was ok.
And what was your most memorable shoot with him?
I guess in Turkey. We climbed to the top of a mountain called Nemrud Dagh in Turkey and at the top there was a woman from Yale that we were meeting, doing an excavation. I think that was the most memorable, definitely the most memorable.
What were the particular qualities that Gleb’s work had?
Artistic design – he was interested in the whole page. Today they sort of just photograph the girl and the dress and he was interested in the whole, the entire, that’s the word, photograph. The way she looked in the scenery, you don’t see much of that, a little bit sometimes in Vogue. There was kind of a quality in Gleb’s photographs that you don’t see any more. They go for the sensational, how much of the girl’s breast can be shown and that kind of stuff. That didn’t enter into it for Gleb.
He was interested in the entire photograph, backgrounds and all. His work had the look of a painter, as if he was doing a canvas, that’s what I would say was one of his qualities. He was really good, very good. He told me at one point that he had destroyed most of his negatives when he moved to Colorado. I don’t think he saw himself as an icon, which is too bad, but there it is.
Carmen dell’Orefice – the muse
What are your fondest memories of working with Gleb?
Oh, you’d have to sit down for hours. Gleb was a new kid on the block, so to speak, in the arena of the up-and-coming Avedons, the younger photographers, as opposed to Cecil Beaton, Horst, Penn, who are the older generation. Gleb was devastatingly handsome, boyish handsome.
You’re the second woman to tell me that.
He was not my type, first of all. I was married and I made my choices, I had a child, but I remember he asked me if I would come down to Florida to do a shoot, and that meant leaving my little child with my father and my husband – and, you know, keeping my household running. But I went on the train with a lovely model that I had worked with before, called Ruth Neumann. And Ruthy said, “Have you worked with Derujinsky before?” I said, “Yes, I have, as a matter of fact, with Bruce Clarke”, he was a fabulous editor at that time, who could put up with Gleb’s idiosyncrasies. But he recognised the scholarly eye he inherited from his parents, this artistic feeling about almost everything. Anyway, Ruthy says, “I am so in love with him.” And I said, “Well, is it going any place?” She said she hoped so. But I think she pretty well knew what she wanted – and she got him.
So you see? It was all interpersonal. In those days the models were so close to each other on so many levels. Everything now seems to be so impersonal and everyone’s out for themselves. But anyway, Gleb was one of the first photographers on this continent to very thoughtfully, picturesquely put models in their garments, in their couture or whatever it was, in an environment and not just on scene paper – and how smart, because Penn did that better.
You know the masters owned that territory, the studio territory if you will. And I did many campaigns with him, and one campaign he lost because this was part of Gleb’s nature. I was being paid $300 an hour, and the client booked me from nine to five. Gleb didn’t show up because he was out gliding in Connecticut and it was too good a day. It didn’t happen once, it happened enough that the client said, “We don’t need this.’ So then we moved on to Sokolsky, and then on to Avedon. I had picked the photographer because the owner of the company wanted me to be happy. It was a lingerie company, Vanity Fair.
Anyway, I did wonderful location shoots – he was best on location. When we went to Hawaii, he saw the life as a whole, he saw the environment, the beauty of it and he knew his equipment and he was at the moment that wonderful thing happens between the muse and the artist, that synergy was worth all the … attendance difficulties, let’s say. He was wonderful to work with and he was kind of a bad boy you know? Naughty but nice.
What were the particular qualities that Gleb’s work had?
I think originality, and he let the reader peek at an environment, an exotic environment, they might not have ever travelled to or have the opportunity to. He had a great imagination and he had no trepidation. He came from a very troubled background and no man imagines being a father, much less really wants to get married – no man really wants to be a father because it’s not their nature. But he had this passion, he lived, he had a passionate eye, he saw, he photographed wonderful environments, he loved nature. As a matter of fact I can’t think of one studio shoot… Wait, yes, he had a studio on the west side – that’s when he didn’t show up – I think he really needed to be outdoors.
Can you imagine being in a glider? You know, up in the air somebody pulls your glider to so many thousand feet and then you disconnect and then you just glide? He would describe all of this to us. It was absolutely adorable too. He was quite shy and he had an ingratiating smile. He was the cutest thing. He was more a boy than a man. If I hadn’t grown up with men early, I wouldn’t have been able to identify him this way. I already wanted to have one who knew more than I did, because if I am the smartest person in the room then I am in the wrong room!
You are still modelling at 80 – I would be thrilled to look half as good as you at half your age!
My darling, look as good as you need to look to reassure yourself that you still exist. Looks have so little to do with it. I’m so grateful that the world collectively decided my father’s bones were worth looking at – believe me, it didn’t change my life; I still had to do what I had to do. You win some, you lose some, and we are at no six degrees of separation – believe me, there are no degrees of separation, and when you can live that from your heart inside, then you don’t miss your life.
by Nicola Kavanagh
From the Glass Archive – Issue 13 – Peace
Special thanks to IconicFocus and Susan Camp for their tireless help in rebuilding the Gleb Derujinsky archive; to Jessica Hastings for her restoration work on the images; and to My Vintage Vogue for sourcing archive images for From Negative to Positive 18 Bazaar Years 1950–1968, the book which Andrea Derujinsky has compiled.

About The Author

Nicola Kavanagh

Glass Magazine editor in chief

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