German photographer and photojournalist Alfred Eisenstaedt once said, “The important thing is not the camera but the eye.” This adage, emphasising a photographer’s creative vision and ability, rather than their tools, seems to entirely convey the life of American photographer Flo Fox.
A veteran street photographer and photojournalist since 1972, Fox has suffered from multiple sclerosis since 1999 and is now wheelchair-bound, visually impaired and is suffering from lung cancer. However, despite these physical challenges, Fox remains an active and feisty photographer in New York City.
Born in Miami, Florida, blind in one eye, Fox lived with her mother and two sisters until their father died when she was two. “We then moved back to our Woodside, Queens apartment where my brother was born. My mother got cancer when I was nine years old and resided there until I was 14 when she died,” Fox says. “I asked my mother for a camera when I was 13 and she said I would get that gift for my ninth grade graduation, but she was never able to fulfill that promise.”
Rather than seeing her visual impairment as an impediment to photography, Fox says it gives her a unique perspective. “Being born blind in one eye gave me a different perspective on my surroundings,” she says. “Seeing on a flat plain was perfect for taking two dimensional photographs and I always looked for depth in the images.” Inspired to take photographs to enhance her memory, Fox says that she enjoyed the possibility to look back and “see where I have been and to record history.”
Starting as a freelancer, Fox says she never had a particular subject she wanted to explore but tended towards the “ironic reality of NYC” when taking photos on the city streets. “My photos are very straight forward and to the point and I always look to capture the decisive moment,” Fox says. “I leave a full frame border, proving I took the picture in its entirety.”
Gaining some traction in the photography world, Fox was asked to be involved in a series of photos for Playboy Magazine after the editor saw a collection of her published sensual images. “They asked me if I would put my own sexual fantasy in a series of photos,” Fox says. The photographs of Fox posing naked with her husband and their best friend appeared in a magazine published by Playboy which presented women’s sexual fantasies. In her published fantasy, Fox offered both men money to simulate sexual conduct with her.
Fox also explored the intersection of pornography and art in her Polaroid Dicthology Collection, a series of controversial and well-known photographs of up-close penises. “Pornography is in the eye of the beholder,” she says when asked about photographing sexual images. “My Dicthology Collection shows men’s appendages with decorations and adornments that match its owners personalities. I feel it exhibits extreme humour and it never fails to make me laugh.”
Travelling internationally, many of her photographs were exhibited in Argentina, Spain, England, France and many other countries. “It’s exciting to know that my work is appreciated in galleries and museums,” Fox says. “I love the fact that my work will live on forever in permanent collections.” Fox was also published in Life Magazine, something she says was a highlight of her career. “Ever since I was a child I was always impressed with the photos I saw in Life Magazine. There was a full page of my photos.”
Fox also speaks fondly of her brief talk show – The Foto-Fox Show – in 1980, where she discussed photography with fellow photographers. “The very first time I saw cable TV and knew it would be shown internationally, I wanted to have my own show. It was great to get to know and interview other photographers.”
But soon after, Fox’s multiple sclerosis began to impact upon her ability to take photographs, and, after 27 years of shooting, she was unable to independently continue her passion. “It’s extremely disappointing to be so disabled that I can’t get many fast moving images, but I do try to ask others to help me shoot photos. I have to explain to how I want the image to be taken, from the top to the bottom to the left to the right. I explain the distance the photographer has to be from the subject and how much to zoom the lens.”
Fox has lost the use of her right hand, but uses her left hand to control her motorised wheelchair and travel around the city. Now, she teaches photography to visually impaired people in New York. “It’s fun to teach blind and visually impaired people photography and describing the details in the images they took,” she says. Fox adds she is committed to giving others the opportunity to learn about photography and this is why she continues to give lessons despite her health.
Fox’s most notable and recent work, ‘Out Of The Ashes: 9/11’, comprised a series of photographs of the ruin of the World Trade Center. As she captured the scenes of destruction, Fox exposed herself to significant personal risk.
“I photographed the World Trade Center when it was being built in 1973 and I thought it was important to document its destruction, even though it gave me lung cancer,” she says. “‘Out Of The Ashes’ is my ode to the World Trade Center and part of the 9/11 Memorial.”
Fox tells me that she has taken over 120,000 photographs over her career and doesn’t intend on stopping anytime soon. Despite now dealing with pain on a daily basis with the twin horrors of lung cancer and multiple sclerosis, Fox remembers her past and achievements with much happiness and gratitude.
Speaking about New York City, the city that gave her so much and that allowed her career to blossom, Fox says: “NYC never sleeps and is a constant barrage of unique characters. And I could never leave it.”