50 Years in Focus
Local photojournalist John Russell captures his catalog of work — and our corner of the world — in new book
By Ross Boissoneau | Nov. 27, 2021
Have you ever given someone a gift that changed the trajectory of their life? John Russell’s girlfriend did. A half-century ago, when Russell was a mop-topped 19-year-old at Michigan State University, his girlfriend — “my first serious girlfriend,” he says — gave him a 35-millimeter camera for Christmas. At the time, Russell was studying to become a landscape architect.
But once he got that camera in his hands, its small shutter button under his index finger, everything changed — Russell included. He began roaming and snapping and suddenly saw his campus, his city, and his future much differently. No longer did he dream of a career at an office drawing board; he wanted the world as his canvas.
For the last 50 years, Russell has kept a camera in his hands, and though the cameras and photography itself have changed countless times, his dedication to making both a life and career of photography haven’t wavered since that Christmas decades ago.
This Christmas, Russell is giving fans of photography and local history a gift of his own: “My Office Today: 50 Years of Northern Michigan Images,” a book showcasing 200 of his best and favorite images shot over his half-century as a photojournalist. The coffee table book, whose images and accompanying stories catalog so much of life Up North, from the early 1970s to today, drops Nov. 30.
SEEING THE LIGHT (AND DARK)
Russell, now with a head and beard of gray hair but the spirit of a 19-year-old, says that gift from a half-century ago might be responsible for what he still refers to as his “present obsession” with photography, but he credits his mother with making him a photographer.
She was an artist herself, he says, and from the time he was a child, she taught him to carefully observe the world around him. “Sight is a gift; seeing is an art,” he says.
Not long after receiving the camera, Russell began putting his eye for the art of seeing to work as a freelance photographer at MSU’s student-run newspaper, The State News. He wasn’t allowed to join the staff initially; only journalism students were allowed. But Russell’s quickly developing skills and passion for the work soon convinced the paper’s advisor to break the rule; Russell became the first non-journalism student to join the paper’s staff.
It wouldn’t be the first barrier he pushed through. Not long after, he managed to nab assignments with the venerable United Press International, shooting for Dennis Kinsella, then chief editor at the Lansing bureau. Emboldened with his success, Russell abandoned his plans for a career in landscape architecture and set about building a career in photojournalism.
And what a career it’s been. At age 23, Russell began a 30-year tenure at the Traverse City Record-Eagle and in that time has shot for a host of other outlets: Newsweek, TIME, National Enquirer, New York Times, PBS, NBC, London Sunday Times, and Chicago Tribune, to name just a few.
How did a teenager kid gifted with a 35-millimeter camera go on to capture so much for so many around the world? Russell’s ever-friendly, energetic demeanor is no doubt part of what makes the artist stand out as a go-to shooter; but his philosophy of the art of photojournalism can’t be overlooked.
He says his goal from the beginning has always been for his pictures to tell a story — whether the photos captured mere moments at a sporting event, illustrated a bit of hard news, or captured the magnitude of nature’s power. As such, many of his published photos ran as standalone images, with nothing but a brief caption accompanying the tale his picture told. Other times, his images have been part of a lengthy feature written by someone else, or even by Russell himself.
And with some photos — no matter how big or beautiful the moments he froze in time — the story he tells of their capture are just as memorable. The great blizzard of January 1978 is one. The two-day storm, which dumped more than 30 inches across much of northwest Lower Michigan in 24 hours and killed more than 20 people in the state, provided Russell one of his greatest tales (not to mention a bevy of great photos, including one that ran in TIME magazine).
While snowplows carved paths so Traverse City firefighters could inch through the snow-piled streets to respond to emergency calls, Russell went out into 70 mph winds with his camera around his neck and skis strapped to his boots. When the drifts became too big, he traded the skis for snowshoes. “I was the only photographer on staff at the Record-Eagle, he says proudly, “snowshoeing or skiing everywhere for images.”
Another time, in 1993, his pager sounded an alert as he and his wife were having lunch: the controversial right-to-die advocate Dr. Jack Kevorkian was Up North and had just assisted two people in committing suicide. Could Russell get to Leland quickly? Russell raced to the location and was the first photographer on the scene, where Stanley Ball, who had terminal pancreatic cancer and was one of two people who had died by suicide that day, had been granted his wish to end his life.
SNAPPING WITH THE CHANGES
Over the course of Russell’s 50-plus years shooting photos, much has changed locally and in the world. The population of Grand Traverse County has practically tripled since Russel began chronicling the North in pictures. The nation’s newspaper industry has been upended, and though some local newspapers, like Russell’s longtime hometown paper and employer Traverse City Record-Eagle, have withstood the test of time, ownership has passed through many hands, and readership and page counts are rarely what they once were. Opportunities for assignments for print publications or wire services are far more limited for aspiring photojournalists than they were when Russell started out. But none of those changes compares to the way photography itself has been revolutionized by the move from film to digital.
“We shot black and white film, which either we developed or a photo lab did the work. We had few choices as to speed of film and carried a heavy bag of prime-focus lenses. When film was sent out to newspapers or magazines, we never saw the images prior to publication and never had the film returned.”
That was then, and this is now. Today’s digital cameras include fast lenses and autofocus capabilities, while cell phones and laptops enable him to send images minutes after they are created. “Control is completely in the hands of the photographer. And we have the original images with caption information on each frame.”
While the changes mean Russell doesn’t have to labor in a darkroom mixing chemicals anymore, the advancements come at a steep price. “Today a photographer has to maintain computers, cameras and lenses, and digital equipment. Most have at least a laptop and a mainframe computer system, cell phone, and iPads,” Russell says. Equipment and software are constantly being improved by manufacturers and developers, and the cost rises accordingly.
Nevertheless, Russell believes the improvements are worth the price. “I look back and marvel at how we worked 50 years ago. Trying to send images from the road involved a suitcase-sized transmitter and the ability to process and scan film, and a good phone line,” says Russell. “Today we can sit in our vehicle and send images in minutes from remote parts of the world.
“In 10 minutes with a digital, you can do two-thirds of the workload. It’s not instant gratification, but it’s close to it,” he adds.
Russell quit the daily newspaper grind 17 years ago but is far from being retired. He keeps a camera on him at all times, no matter where the day and road takes him. In fact, the title for his book comes from his experience of working wherever, whenever. Says Russell: “Anywhere I am is my office.”
"My Office Today" will be available at Horizon Books — where Russell will host a book signing Dec. 9 — and The Camera Shop in Traverse City, as well as at amazon.com.