By Brooklyn Reader

September 25, 2014, 4:01 pm

 

Russell Frederick

Russell Frederick holding two of his many analog, medium format cameras, in his home work space in Brooklyn

Russell Frederick was 27 years old and working as a hospital clerk when he announced he was leaving the field of healthcare to pursue a career in photography.

His family scoffed at the idea: His mother pleaded with him to change his mind, calling his interest in photography a “hobby,” not a career. His grandfather, who had immigrated to Bushwick from Panama a few years before Russell was born, said, “You think we came to this country for you to take pictures? That’s not why we came here…”

Even a doctor at Beth Israel, where he had worked for the last nine years, said, “Russell you’re way too smart to do that.” She offered to pay for his nursing school.

But Russell had already made up his mind, and this time, he was prepared for the push back. Since the age of 12, he’d been fighting the same battle over whether to show his authentic, creative self or continue living out the dreams of others.

“My mom used to complain, because, as a child, I used to doodle all the time when what she really wanted me to be doing was reading a book,” said Russell. “Honestly, when I would draw, I really didn’t know what I was doing or why I was doing it, I just knew I enjoyed it so much… It was a discovery phase for me.”

Eventually, his mother banished him from all of his art supplies. That was a mistake: Russell got even more creative and began making his own markers by emptying roll-on deodorant bottles, filling it with rubbing alcohol and carbon paper. He let the carbon paper soak for a few weeks, “borrowed” chalk board erasers from school, peeled off the wool, folded it over the roll-on bottles, and voilà: markers!

With his new markers, he got into graffiti art. “That was during the 80s when graffiti was public enemy #1,” said Russell. Eventually, he was stopped by the cops. And that was the breaking point! His mother, a nurse, got her son a job working with her at the hospital where he could begin a viable career in healthcare.

Surprisingly, he enjoyed working in healthcare. He enjoyed helping people. And he was intrigued by the human body. But he found the work environment stringent, sterile, political and eventually, he began to feel unfulfilled.

He picked up his first camera at age 26 when some friends from church asked him to style and photograph the fashion section of their new magazine, Indigo. It was fascinating, capturing the beauty and innocence of real-life scenarios. Suddenly, his creative compunction re-surfaced— this time, stronger than ever.

Russell enrolled in an introductory course in black and white photography at the International Center for Photography. The first day of class, the instructor at ICP, the late Bernard Palias, noticed Russell’s work and told him he would be a great photographer:

“When he told me that, I just never looked back,” said Russell. “I realized what I was put here to do.”

Summer, 2003 -- On Fulton Street in Bedford Stuyvesant culture is not lacking. The community is a diverse display of African American, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, Central America, South American, Asia, Europe and White American. Photo: Russell Frederick

Summer, 2003 — On Fulton Street in Bedford Stuyvesant culture is not lacking. The community is a diverse display of African American, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, Central America, South American, Asia, Europe and White American.
Photo: Russell Frederick

Russell announced to his colleagues at the hospital that he was leaving to pursue a full-time career in photography.

Shortly after, a buddy of Russell’s introduced him to a neighbor named Eli Reed, an older gentleman, who his friend noted, “always got a ton of photography magazines in the mail.” Little did Russell know that Reed was a well-known photographer— in fact, the only black photographer at Magnum Photos.

“Reed was always traveling,” said Russell. “He’d been to Beirut, all over the world. And he was the first to give me really good feedback on developing my portfolio.”

Eventually, Reed became Russell’s mentor and saw such promise in Russell’s work, he was able to secure for him a job at Magnum in the traffic department where he began handling the film, prints and contact sheets of all the photographers in the NY bureau.

“I got to see all of the photos first,” said Russell. “I learned the business side of things. I started developing my photographic IQ. In some ways, I think it was even better than an education at NYU or SVA.”

In 2000, he was accepted into a special photography workshop program in St. Louis, called “Diverse Visions,” where his work was noticed by Fred Sweets, senior photo editor at The Associated Press and Vin Alabiso, vice president of photography at AP. This relation led to him getting a job in the photo library department at AP, where he would work for the next eight years.

Fall, 2010 -- Alanzo Dale is of Panamanian heritage and has been a Bedford Stuyvesant resident for almost 20 years. Mr. Dale is an event planner with the "Block Association" and he is one of the founders of the "Brooklyn Circus" clothing line. Photo: Russell Frederick

Fall, 2010 — Alanzo Dale is of Panamanian heritage and has been a Bedford Stuyvesant resident for almost 20 years. Mr. Dale is an event planner with the “Block Association” and he is one of the founders of the “Brooklyn Circus” clothing line.
Photo: Russell Frederick

Around this same time, Russell began to notice something about his neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant:

Street lights were being disassembled and switched to cast iron. A few weeks later, he noticed that Fulton Street, between Bedford and Marcy, which used to be thick with street vendors, was empty. One day he came out, and they were gone.

“Once I saw that, something said to me there’s some changes going on that not everybody is aware of… So I went to a community board meeting and they said it too. The community was changing, and they predicted in ten years that a studio apartment in Bed-Stuy was going to be $1,000. At the time, I was paying $425 for my studio.

“That sealed it for me. That prompted me to aggressively begin photographing the community before its total transformation,” said Russell. “Also, whenever I told people at work that I lived in Bed-Stuy, they would cringe and laugh and say, ‘Oh, you must walk around in a bullet-proof vest and a helmet.’ And I was offended, because I knew what I saw, and that wasn’t my experience.”

Spring, 2014 -- King Lion Boboshanti and his daughter Queen Omenga pose for a portrait at a Mother’s day event at the Akawabaa Mansion in Bed Stuy. King Lion is a Vegan raw food chef from Jamaica. Photo: Russell Frederick

Spring, 2014 — King Lion Boboshanti and his daughter Queen Omenga pose for a portrait at a Mother’s day event at the Akawabaa Mansion in Bed Stuy. King Lion is a Vegan raw food chef from Jamaica.
Photo: Russell Frederick

“People on the outside only saw our challenges, but not the diversity, the love and the heart and the soul of the community. I realized that the community needed honor; the pioneers needed to be honored; the people’s voices needed to be heard.

Summer, 2003 -- Two friends pose for a picture on Throop Ave right before they are told to come upstairs. Photo: Russell Frederick

Summer, 2003 — Two friends pose for a picture on Throop Ave right before they are told to come upstairs.
Photo: Russell Frederick

“There were a lot of untold stories for the place that was home for me, because the people who weren’t actually from Bed-Stuy or even Brooklyn for that matter, were telling our stories,” he said.

Spring, 2004 -- Palm Sunday at Janes United Methodist Church on Malcolm X Boulevard. Photo: Russell Frederick

Spring, 2004 — Palm Sunday at Janes United Methodist Church on Malcolm X Boulevard.
Photo: Russell Frederick

“I felt the best way to author an accurate story would be visually. And it was from that point on, I started photographing Bed-Stuy with a purpose.”

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18 Responses

    • Russell Frederick

      Thanks so much for the kind words Brooklyn. I’m trying to honor the people. Thanks again!

      Reply
  1. Simone nicholad

    wow. What a blessing and inspiration to have such a young person follow their dream and as a result find their purpose. This is a great body of work. I am inspired to take my steps.

    Reply
    • Russell Frederick

      Simone,

      Take a step forward towards happiness. The path may not be laid out for your eyes to see but as long as you go forward in pursuit of your passion you are going in the right direction. Take a step towards having a fulfilling life.

      I appreciate the kind words about my work.

      Best regards,
      Russell

      Reply
  2. Brittini Houston

    Russell Frederick’s work is amazing. I got the chance to see his Katrina exhibit in NYC and it was truly a mind changing experience. No matter how bad things get that exhibit reminds you that others have lost everything and still remain in good spirits.

    Reply
    • Russell Frederick

      Hey Brittini,

      Thanks for supporting me from 2007. I’m glad the good people of Katrina had an impact on you. Salute!

      Best regards,
      Russell

      Reply
    • Russell Frederick

      Cynthia,

      Thanks so much for investing in Russell Frederick photography when very few people were. I could not do what I do without the support of good people like you. Thanks so much!

      Hugs,
      Russell

      Reply
    • Russell Frederick

      I salute you Michael King!

      Zawadi did an excellent job. I’m doing my part brother to preserve our history and challenge people to think differently. We all have a role in our community being better. I’m just doing my part. I appreciate you taking the time to post a comment.

      Respect,
      Russell

      Reply
  3. Emilia Frederick

    I am proud of all that you have done, continue to do and the respect and honor you bring to our people and a community that has the makings of becoming invisible. Your dedication is inspiring. Very proud of you and I love you immensely.
    Mom

    Reply
    • Russell Frederick

      I love you mom!

      I’m doing the best I can and you are going to be the first person to get a copy of my book when its printed. I will continue to honor the community and you.

      Respect,
      Russell

      Reply
  4. Pablo Inirio

    Russell, it makes me so happy to see how much your personal vision has solidified into a very sensitive and mature voice! And I can’t help but smile as I remember those crazy Magnum days!
    Keep doing the magic.

    Cheers,
    Pablo

    Reply
    • Russell Frederick

      Pablo,

      I feel your sincerity. Thanks bro! The Magnum days were a great time. I learned so much. I looked forward to coming to work everyday. Great people! I will do my best to keep honoring the people Pablo. I appreciate you bro.

      Uno,
      Russell

      Reply
  5. Tia B

    Congratulations on your hard-earned success and in modeling perseverance! I too am happy to own RF originals and I so love black and white photography. Brooklyn is very fortunate to have you as her intimate archivist. Continued growth and success. Peace & blessings.

    Reply
    • Russell Frederick

      Tia B,

      Thanks so much for the support over the years Tia B. You were the second person to buy one of my photos. The first was Natalia in 2004 🙂 I’m so thankful Brooklyn has embraced me. The journey continues!

      Love,
      Russell

      Reply
  6. Paula Wynter

    Thankyou for your courage to follow your dreams. You honor all the bravery of you ancestors who survived all kinds of indignity & horror & fought with every resource they possessed, never loosing hope so that they might pass the batton to you to take us closer to our true selves. Your work is excellent. This article is excellent. Culture makes our life worth living, and you work is adding immensely to ours. You are a testament to Adam Clayton’s charge to us “Keep the faith baby.” 😀

    Reply
  7. Derrick Williams

    Greetings Beloved Brother, King Russell
    As with you, the same is with me photography is a way of life!
    After 40 years, of shooting, I am exceedingly
    happy to see the extent of your growth and development, and how you’ve stayed true to the process, and continue to stay true to the process, in a world that is not so kind those who dear to follow there dreams!
    Keep up the great works.
    Derrick Williams
    Photographer

    Reply

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