April 30, 1930 – Oct. 29, 2012
For 42 years, Roy Russell roamed the highways and back roads of Western New York, capturing the essence of the region from his view behind the camera and winning awards for photos ranging from stark images of the Attica prison uprising to an offbeat photo of a camel nibbling on a youth’s sneakers.
And the former chief photographer of The Buffalo News did it all with a smile on his face, a calming influence and a keen wit that made him a favorite in the newspaper’s darkroom and newsroom for more than a quarter of a century.
Mr. Russell – whose real name was Matthew Leroy Russell – died Monday night in Hospice at Schofield Residence Nursing Home, following a six-month battle with Lewy body disease, a form of dementia. He was 82.
His career spanned 27 years at The Buffalo News, starting at the old Buffalo Evening News in June 1969 before he was named chief photographer in June 1983. He retired in September 1996.
Colleagues remembered him for much more than his ability to tell a story with his camera.
“Roy was the ultimate chief photographer,” News photographer James P. McCoy said. “We were a really close-knit family. Roy always had our back. He loved us.”
Fellow workers always marveled at Mr. Russell’s even temperament, even under tense deadline situations.
“Roy never lost his temper,” McCoy said. “He never raised his voice. You just loved and respected Roy so much that you never wanted to fail.”
A City of Tonawanda native, Mr. Russell graduated from Tonawanda High School in 1949.
The following year, he and more than a dozen neighborhood friends enlisted in the U.S. Navy together. He served as an aviation photographer during the Korean War, a position that helped shape his career.
Mr. Russell later worked as a Tonawanda News photographer for 15 years before moving to The News.
During the 1971 Attica prison uprising, Mr. Russell was chosen by his colleagues to serve as the “pool photographer” for newspapers across the country that sent staffers to cover the deadly rebellion. He and other News photographers worked around the clock, commuting from Buffalo to Attica.
“I can recall getting back from Attica at 2 in the morning, processing my negatives and prints, then going back at 10 for some more,” he recalled years later.
One night, he was at the state prison until 10 p.m., when he returned home, only to learn that a News reporter had written a feature story about the people living near the prison. So he returned to Attica, to capture the mood of the town.
Mr. Russell considered “spot news” his forte. So he often was dispatched to airplane crashes, train derailments and other tragedies, usually operating under tight deadlines to meet the newspaper’s various editions.
He won well over a dozen newspaper awards, both from the Associated Press and the Buffalo Newspaper Guild, for photos of various subjects, including the bloody Attica prison scene, flood-stricken Southern Tier communities in 1972, the rescue of a rafter who overturned in the Niagara River rapids and the feature shot of the nibbling camel.
Mr. Russell was preceded in death by his first wife, Barbara A., in 1996.
Survivors include his wife of 15 years, the former Marlene Mendola; a daughter, Jennifer Loomis; three sons, Michael, Scott and Mark; and a brother, Fred.
Funeral services will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday in Tonawanda Church of Christ, Summit and Delaware streets, City of Tonawanda.
– Gene Warner