Flo Fox claims that she is a born photographer. Born with a visual impairment to one eye, she never had to close it while looking through the lens. Over the last 46 years, Flo has been documenting everyday life scenes at the streets of New York.
She lost her parents very early, so she was raised by her relatives. Yet, she likes to say that her education comes from the street. She left home taking only her sewing machine and a bag of clothes with her. She earned her first salary making costumes and then bought a camera. It is practically impossible to see her without it ever since.
At the age of thirty, she acquired a physical disability and noticed that she is losing her sight in her other eye as well due to multiple sclerosis. She started advocating for the rights of persons with disabilities and, overnight and single-handedly, building ramps in inaccessible places along the streets of New York. So far, she made around ten of them.
Flo Fox has made over 120,000 photos. Her work has been published in magazines such as Life and Playboy, presented in TV, exhibited in galleries all over the world (in Argentina, Spain, England, France, Italy, Mexico, and Japan), while some of them are a part of permanent museum exhibitions.
For the Disability Portal, she says:
– Most people say a picture is worth a thousand words. In my case, one word is worth a thousand pictures.
I’m glad to be alive.
Does your last name match your personality?
I would say yes since Foxy is my nickname.
Your favorite childhood memory?
My most important remembrances were when I was creating: whether drawing, painting, writing, sewing, or sculpting.
What piece of advice would you include in a letter to your younger self?
Take a deep breath and problems will pass.
Do you remember the first photograph you’ve ever taken? Or the first one that was publicly displayed?
On my 3rd roll of film, I took in 1972 a photo of a flat inner tube in a gas station and it looked like a pair of lips that was published on postcards. The first photo that I ever had published was of Mr. And Mrs. Young doing dishes in London during my hitchhiking through Europe. It was published in 1974 in 35 mm photography magazine, it was also in an exhibit at The Photographers Gallery in London, as well as in 1974.
I would feel very familiar with an alien and introduce him to Planet Earth through my photos.
What’s the purpose of visual arts?
Photography uses one of our 5 senses to their fullest extent.
Did your visual impairment somehow help you to define your style?
I continued shooting my favorite images of daily life except when I imitated the snowy texture. That interfered with my vision.
You taught the first photography class for blind and visually impaired students in 1979. What’s the most important part of the lesson you gave?
The most important part of the lesson I gave blind and visually impaired students, is that it helped me deal with my own blindness.
Tell us the story behind your Playboy photographs.
In 1976, Playboy press wrote and asked me if I’d like to produce new work for their future publication, Ecstasy. They suggested I send a brief description of my sexual fantasy that I would do in photographic form and asked how much money I would need to complete the mission. The fantasy was easy to procure: one woman, two men, she knows who she is and what she wants, creates their presence. First alone, she glances at herself in the antique oval mirror. She then takes off her tee-shirt (camera behind her, seeing full rear form and her front in the mirror). She starts touching herself, when two men appear, each on opposite sides of her, one wearing a black robe, the other one white. A simulated, sexual conduct, a close-up of three bodies together, she in the middle creatively shown from neck to thigh. Then you see a double-exposure of a man’s hand leaving (kinda see-through), and you wonder if the men were really there… or just in her masturbatory fantasy. I suggested it to be a self-portrait. And it was. I shot it in black and white infrared film, hand-toned and hand- painted the final prints. I asked for $3,000 and Susan Gagnon of Playboy press sent me $1000, to begin. Ecstasy had men’s fantasies in the first half of the book, and women’s in the second half. I sketched each shot carefully, set it up, and one of the men focused for me (because of my vision loss). Eleven shots completed the series. The pictures were uniquely beautiful and the quality was fine.
Since you were becoming disabled at that time, how did that affect your body image, self-esteem and sexuality?
Looking in the mirror, I saw I still looked like a hot chick. Physical disability didn’t affect me all that much yet but as I said, I needed help focussing.
Since the time you built your own ramps around New York until today, what has changed regarding disability rights and advocacy?
When I was partially able-bodied I carried cement on my motorized vehicle and troweled my own ramps. Many more pedestrian ramps have been built, which help not only disabled people but women with baby carriages and shopping carts as well. Busses are now totally accessible with wheelchair ramps and lifts. But on my street corner at this present time, the subway station is being renovated and not including an elevator for the 200 apartments in my building that was built for the disabled.
Is there anyone you particularly admire in the disability rights movement?
The late Frieda Zames was a great activist and worked with me and was one of my greatest influences in making life more accessible.
If someone gave you 30 seconds to address to all disabled women in the world, what would you say?
Just try and live with your disability. And go beyond to your creative selves.
Do you still take photographs? What sparks your creativity?
Yes, I still see everything as a photographer but have to get my aides to shoot my pictures for me. Things that are ironic or have a sense of humor, catch my attention and must be remembered through a photograph.
I would like to be remembered as an attractive woman with a quick sense of humor as portrayed in my images.
Anything I haven’t asked, but it’s important to add…?
You should see a short of me in the movie: A Piece of Work with Joan Rivers.
Introduction translated by Ankica Dragin