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Rae Russel


Rae Russel was born in Brooklyn in 1925. Her father was a freelance egg candler, her mother a housewife who had ambition for her daughter. She encouraged Rae to seek a career, and when Rae chose photography, she supported the choice. 

Rae's first job was operating a photostat machine at a large catalogue house. She moved on to Weiman and Lester as a darkroom technician. From there she went to work as a printer for a leading photo agency, Pix, Inc., where she enlarged the work of Alfred Eisenstadt, Toni Frissell, George Karger, Jerry Cooke, and other celebrated photographers of the day.

At the same time, she began shooting children's portraits on weekends for extra money and to gain experience. Her talent was quickly recognized and she was signed to a contract as a Pix photographer. Soon she was shooting assignments for Colliers, This Week, and Life magazines. Her fellow photographers encouraged her to join ASMP, the unofficial union of magazine photographers. Eventually, she felt the need to leave Pix and work on her own as a freelance photojournalist.

When Toni Frissell heard of her leaving, she made Rae an offer she could not refuse. In exchange for printing fifteen enlargements per week, Rae would have access to Frissell's darkroom at 480 Lexington, a center for many established photographers at the time. She left Brooklyn, her mother, and moved to the big city into a third floor walkup.

Rae freelanced for a year, then signed up with Scope Associates, a co-operative agency whose members found and executed their own assignments. A fellow member introduced Rae to the Photo League. Taking classes with Sid Grossman at the Photo League broadened Rae's approach to making photographs. She took part in two exhibits at the Photo League, one a two-person show and another entitled "This is the Photo League," a major exhibition. There is a new book about the Photo League titled This was the Photo League: Compassion and the Camera from the Depression to the Cold War. Rae was now also teaching photography, as well as shooting for the Henry Street Settlement on the Lower East Side. Some of her earliest exciting work is from this time, such as a series of photographs of a family being evicted from a cold-water tenement building.

Her freelance career continued until her marriage in 1955 to a fellow photographer. Two sons followed, and a move to Westchester County in the early 70's. There the Katonah Gallery exhibited Rae's work. One of the exhibitions at the Katonah Gallery was a series of Native American Indian portraits of the Seminole tribe on the Big Cypress Reservation in Florida. She visited the reservation several times to photograph many of the tribal elders and document their vanishing way of life. Her portrait subjects include Josie Billie, the tribal medicine man, and his wife, Luci, then in their eighties. Rae captured not only their humanity, but also their increasing assimilation into non-native culture with photographs of their elementary schools, clinics, feast days, and the Seminole cattle business. She says matter-of-factly of these cattlemen, "the Indians were the cowboys."

The Big Cypress exhibition inspired the Katonah Gallery to commission Rae to photograph another Native American tribe, the Delaware, whose ancestral home was the Hudson River Valley. Because the Delaware had been forcibly dispersed, this meant traveling to Ontario, Wisconsin, and Oklahoma to meet and photograph over fifty descendants. The series became an integral part of the major Native American exhibition, "Many Trails," at the Katonah Gallery in 1983.

Throughout most of her professional career, Rae was a portrait photographer specializing in children and a teacher at the Katonah Gallery, the Westchester Art Workshop, Marymount College, and in private workshops.

Rae adds:

I love good bread, and photography has been my staff of life for over fifty-five years. Since I first stumbled into photography at age 17, until today at age 76, it has supported and sustained me-given me purpose, gratification, financial benefit, friends and lovers, joy and heartache, whenever I turned to it. What began as a way to pay the rent became a way of life.

Asked to describe myself, I say first, I am a photographer.