Whether you call him a Renaissance man or larger than life, Gleb Derujinsky Jr. lived a life of creation and adventure. He died Thursday in a car accident on South Camino del Rio near Walmart at the age of 86.
“He had quite the history,” said Brandon Donahue, the gallery manager at Open Shutter Gallery, which displayed Derujinsky's work and was one of his hangouts in Durango. “He's telling all these stories and you're thinking he's one crazy old man. Then you look into it and find out this guy's the real deal.”
Derujinsky was born March 19, 1925, in New York City. His father, Russian-American Gleb Derujinsky Sr., was related to famed Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and a renowned sculptor whose work is in museums across the country.
Derujinsky Jr. was taking, developing and printing his own photos by age 6. By his teens, he was invited to join the prestigious New York Camera Club, where he learned from and worked with some of the most influential photographers of the time, including Alfred Steiglitz and Edward Steichen.
Then came World War II. Derujinsky served in the U.S. Army.
“He was breaking down fences into concentration camps and recognized for how quickly he came up with ideas,” Donahue said.
Derujinsky told the Herald in 2010 the story of needing gravel to build a three-mile-long road to the front. He went into town and convinced residents, in French, to pull up the railroad ties and collect the gravel from the railroad bed. His initiative saw him promoted from corporal to staff sergeant at 19.
After the war, Derujinsky went on to be one of the most acclaimed photographers of his time.
“He was a contemporary of Richard Avedon, and they were both of a similar quality,” Donahue said. “His photography is just stunning, as good as anyone's, but Gleb's was not as well-known from that period.”
His work appeared in Look, Life, Esquire, Glamour, Town and Country and The New York Times Magazine. Derujinsky's most iconic photos were part of his 17-year career with Harper's Bazaar, and his trip around the world with Boeing's new 707 and a group of glamorous models is the stuff of legend.
“He took photos in places you couldn't go, like China, Thailand and Iran,” Donahue said. “He loved juxtaposing high-class lifestyles with plebeian lifestyles. He would take models from palaces in Paris down to the fish market, where he shot them with oyster shuckers and fishmongers.”
Still photography was not the only area in which Derujinsky excelled. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, he moved into cinematography and film direction, working primarily on television commercials and winning awards from the New York Art Directors and the Cannes and Venice International Advertising Film Festivals.
Derujinsky raced cars on a team sponsored by Ferrari America and was one of the top glider pilots in the U.S.
“He said, ‘When we hit 145 mph, that's too fast,'” Donahue said about Derujinsky's racing Ferraris. “There was a documentary (“The Sun Ship Game”) about his glider flying that was shown at the Marfa (Texas) Film Festival for the first time in like 40 years last year.”
Derujinsky designed and built some of the first carbon-fiber bicycles in the world, which were used by the U.S. Olympic Cycling Team.
Derujinsky's mother was a classical pianist, and Derujinsky showed talent in that area as well.
“He had this almost mystical connection to Chopin,” Donahue said. “He played a bit of improvised boogie-woogie now and then, too.”
Derujinsky and his wife, Wallis, who was also killed in Thursday's accident, moved to Durango in 1976. The two opened a custom jewelry store, and Derujinsky pursued his love of skiing, becoming an instructor at Purgatory Ski Area for a couple of decades.
“He had all these different facets, and most people only knew him from one or two of them,” Donahue said. “It's hard to believe that one man had this incredible scope of life.”