Russell served as a captain in the U.S. Military Railroad Construction Corps. Like many other photographers during the Civil War, he later became a survey photographer in the western territories. He was also a skilled painter and journalist, reporting on local events for the Omaha Nunda News. In photography, however, Russell found a medium that suited his western subject.
In 1865 Russell became the official photographer for the Union Pacific Railroad. With an artist's eye, he often selected views that juxtaposed monumental geological elements to manmade structures such as railroad and telegraph poles. Men and women appear in Russell's pictures, although they are often dwarfed by the vast landscape. Acknowledging both the technical triumph of the railroad and the scenic grandeur of the landscape, the photographs suggest the possibility of their coexistence.
In 1869 the railroad published an album of Russell's photographs of railroad construction in Wyoming and Utah titled The Great West Illustrated in a Series of Photographic Views Across the Continent Taken Along the Line of the Union Pacific Railroad, West from Omaha, Nebraska. In the early 1870s Russell left the Union Pacific Railroad and returned to New York.
Merry A. Foresta American Photographs: The First Century (Washington, D.C.: National Museum of American Art with the Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996)