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An Interview With Legally Blind Photographer Flo Fox

Just because she's blind, doesn't mean this article isn't NSFW.

Portrait by Gigi Stoll

Other than a really cool name, Flo Fox has what seems to be one of the largest and most peculiar photographic portfolios of anyone who's spent time living in the last century. Having grown up on "the streets of New York", as she likes to put it, she's photographed everything that seems remotely interesting about the city: Its cracked pavements, the graffiti on its walls, the construction of the World Trade Center, and plenty of its mad inhabitants, including their private parts. Which is pretty impressive, especially if you consider that she was born blind in one eye and lost the use of the other after she was diagnosed with MS at the age of 30. She was also part of the uber-hip bohemian crowd that ran Greenwich Village in the 1970s, had her own A&E talk show and built a few disabled ramps on her own, while in a wheelchair. We were worried that we might have missed something out of our gargantuan intro, so we called her up and chatted while she sat in her Chelsea apartment overlooking the Empire State Building.

BEWARE, NSFW IMAGES!

VICE: Hi, Ms Fox! How are you doing?
Flo Fox:
You should have asked me what am I doing. I’m preparing for two exhibits, so I’m going crazy trying to get the work done. The first will be at this space called Gallery 307, and it’s going to be a retrospective of my work. Only my work, one woman show!

That must be nerve-wracking. How about we do a retrospective interview as well, then? Where did you grow up?
Okay… Well, I was born in Miami, Florida. My parents were both New Yorkers, but my father went down to Miami, to start a honey company, which he did, but he died of a heart attack when I was 2 years old. Then my mother brought her children back to her old apartment in Queens, where we lived until she passed away when I was 14. After that, I was raised through high school by an aunt and uncle. But I always like to think I got my education on the streets.

When did you first get into photography?
When I was 13 years old. I saw this picture of people on the street by Robert Frank and immediately turned to my mother and said, “Ma, I want a camera! The professional kind!” And she replied, “When you graduate ninth grade, I’ll get you a camera.” But she died before I graduated, so I never got that camera. I didn’t get one until I was 26 years old, actually. I divorced my husband and got a job at a clothes firm, and that's where my first paycheck went.

Would you say your interest in photography has been affected by your disabilities?
Well, yes. I was born blind in one eye, which made me a natural for photography. I didn’t have to close it to take a picture, I didn’t have to change what I saw from three dimensions to flat planes. All I have to do is frame the picture as I see it. Does that sound interesting to you?

Yes, very much so. Please go on.
If you say so… When I was 30 years old, in 1972, I became visually impaired in my good eye. A year later I started dragging one leg, and had to walk with a cane. I hadn’t been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis yet, but I knew that’s what it was because my sister had been diagnosed with it the year before. Two years later, my right hand starts getting numb. I really hope you’re not writing all this – you're recording, right?

I am, don’t worry about me. I read somewhere that at one point you taught photography to other visually impaired people.
Indeed. In 1978, I started teaching at the Lighthouse For The Blind. I was actually the first person to test the Autofocus camera, for Camera 35 magazine. We were hanging out with the editor, an English guy, and he asked me if I had read this book, and I said no. So, he was like “What are you, illiterate?” And I said, “No; legally blind.”

That must have been awkward.
Well, he was smart so he said, “Have you heard of Autofocus?” And a little while later, he brought me the first Autofocus camera to test for their magazine. Right after I got the camera, I went to the Lighthouse and offered to do this course. I only taught for a year, but then I did many other seminars in galleries and museums.

Wasn’t that also when you began working on the Dickthology series?
Yes, around the same time I started teaching, Polaroid came out with the SX-70 camera. I tried it, but I felt that it took boring pictures from a distance and the square format was different to deal with compared to 35mm. But I also immediately discovered that it was great for close-ups; just somebody’s eyes, lips, and other parts. That’s how I began my Dickthology.

Why did you decide to focus on dicks?
Well, can you think of a more poignant subject?

Not really. It must have been quite shocking at the time, though. How did the public react?
My whole life, I had no parents and no one to teach me right from wrong, so I developed my own way of seeing things. Most people laughed, very few were revolted. And then there were the ones who asked to see more!

How did you go about finding your subjects? Was it easy?
Oh, it was extremely easy. I began the series 24 years ago, and have asked every male who's set foot in my apartment since then if I could borrow their parts and make them look pretty. Most of them were happy to let me. Some even asked me if they could take part.

I guess there’s something weirdly empowering about publicly showing your private parts but nothing else.
Yes, but I find each of them very recognisable. They all have their own unique situation.

True.
Oh, you’ve seen a few yourself, huh?

None that have measured up favourably to the Empire State Building. Tell me about your Playboy photographs.
In 1976, Playboy got in touch with me and asked me to do a series on my own sexual fantasies. I decided to do a self-portrait acting out what was my fantasy at the time: One woman undressing and touching herself in front of a mirror while two men approach her, one wearing a black robe, the other a white robe. Good and evil. Finally, she is left standing alone in front of the mirror, wondering if the men were really there or if it was just her fantasy. I thought it was a good metaphor about her knowing who she was. Actually, at the time I was already becoming disabled, but I was stepping on a rubber squeeze ball and used a timer to take the shots.

Well, you look hot. You also presented a talk show, the Foto-Flo Show. Who was you favourite interviewee?
Thank you. Yes, that was between 1980 and 1982. Steve Steigman was the easiest. He worked for a company called Bay City Productions and most of his work was commercial, so I guess he felt more comfortable talking about it. The hardest one to interview was Ruth Orkin. She was very picky about her answers. But I think she knew she wasn’t going to be around for much longer, so she might have been a bit angry.

How so?
Well, at some point I asked her, “Don’t you think people will want to buy your work just because you're not well?” She got really angry. She hit the table and said, “How dare you bring that up. I still want to get commercial work.” I apologised and tried to change the subject, but I had hit a nerve. She died shortly thereafter.

That’s sad. Do you have a favourite picture?
I quite like the World Trade Center ones. I actually went up to the roof and hung off the edge, had the foreman hold my legs, so I could photograph them building the building. I was pretty daring in my youth. The builders, they all looked at me like I was nuts. Can you imagine? A sexy young chick on the scaffolding.

Must have been quite a sight. I also heard you used to build your own ramps around New York.
That’s right. When I became disabled there were many different blocks I couldn’t get around because they didn’t have a ramp. So, when there was a block I wanted to go to regularly, I would get a big bag of cement and go there at midnight, drop the bag off, go back to my apartment get a bucket of water, go back, mix it and built my own ramps. I even got into newspapers: “Crazy photographer builds ramps at midnight,” the 'papers would write. I must have built around ten.
 

You’ve also taken quite a few pictures of cracked pavements.
Yes, I call that series Criptic. It started as an attempt to help the disabled; to try to make the state build more ramps. There is one photograph which I call "Personal Earthquake", which I showed on a TV news show called Shame On You! The show was based on exposing anybody or anything that makes life uncomfortable. They fixed the sidewalk after that, which was good because there were many disabled people living around that area.

Do you still take photographs?
I am physically not able to. However, I always carry two cameras with me, and stop every time I see something interesting and try to convince them to take the pictures the way I would see it. One I really like is "Almost A Passover", which my attendant took in 2008. She was really perplexed as to why I would want to photograph discarded barricades, but I really think there’s something funny about it. Don’t you?

Yeah, I'd say there was. Thank you very much for a wonderful conversation, Ms. Fox.
Thank you, dear.