She photographed tenement evictions and impoverished American Indians on tribal lands, but she also turned her lens toward wedding celebrations, children and families.
A memorial service for Russel, 83, who died Oct. 17 at Petaluma Valley Hospital after complications from surgery for a brain tumor, is planned Sunday.
Rae Schlussel was born May 16, 1925, the middle of three children born to Ida and Adolf Schlussel of Brooklyn, N.Y.
Encouraged by her mother to pursue photography, Russel worked under Alfred Eisenstadt, Toni Frissell and other top photographers of the day, according to her son, Jack Gescheidt of San Geronimo.
She eventually became a contract photographer but later moved to free-lance work and became a member of the vaunted Photo League, whose membership included Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange.
Her work was featured in Life, Colliers and This Week.
"As a young woman in her 20s and 30s, she was going into lower East Side tenements and doing picture stories," Gescheidt said.
A series on an African-American family evicted from a cold-water tenement in New York City in 1953 drew acclaim.
"I think part of the Photo League's overall focus was to uncover and show . . . the miserable living conditions of Americans," said Barry Singer, owner of Barry Singer Gallery in Petaluma, which represented Russel after her move to Petaluma in 2002.
"I loved her because she shows up and says, 'Now you have no excuse, you have to represent me,' " Singer said of his friend of more than a decade.
In addition to her work in New York City's tenements, Russel had long relationships with members of the Seminole tribe living on the Big Cypress Reservation in Florida as well as the Delaware tribe.
"They trusted her, and she really felt a love for them and she wanted to capture that photographically," Jack Gescheidt said. "They jokingly called her 'wannabe' -- a wannabe tribe (member)."
In 1955, Russel married fellow photographer Alfred Gescheidt. The couple had two sons, but separated and eventually divorced in the mid-1970s.
In addition to her son Jack Gescheidt, Russel is survived by son Andy Gescheidt of San Francisco.
A gallery of her photographs can be viewed at http://www.singergallery.com.
Sunday's memorial service will be held in Petaluma. For time and place, Jack Gescheidt asks that you contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
-- Kerry Benefield