Welcome to In Focus, a feature where writer Hannah Frishberg profiles some of the great street photographers of New York City's past and present.
Flo Fox is legally blind, yet she has shot over 120,000 images and counting. "I'd like to prove that even though I'm a total cripple, I can still take fantastic photos," Fox says of her continuously growing portfolio. Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at age 30, Fox, now 69 and completely paralyzed, still takes her camera with her everywhere, having attendants, friends, and strangers take photos for her with an autofocus camera. Fox was born in Miami, raised in Woodside, and has lived in Manhattan for most of her life. She describes her work, which is in the permanent collection of both the Brooklyn Museum and the Smithsonian, as capturing the "ironic reality of New York City." In addition to her photography, Fox works as an advocate for the disabled, helping build ramps all over New York and teaches photography classes for the visually impaired. She likes to refer to Stephen Hawking as her mentor and "competition" and has done a breathtaking job of capturing a gritty side of New York that has, unlike her boundless energy, all but disappeared. Here, Fox talks about her body of workand sneaking into the original World Trade Centerand shares a collection of photos, largely taken in the 1970s and '80s.
What motivates you to take a photo?
Wow, I wish I knew. Something that catches my attention graphically, or that says something.
Do you find today's New York less photogenic than it was in the 70s and 80s?
No. It's always a place to be. I am a tourist every day in my own town. I don't miss the '70s and '80s, but the '50s and '60s. The doo wop. The rhythm and blues.
Do you prefer photographing certain neighborhoods to others?
When I lived in the Village, it was the Village. Now that I live in Chelsea, I live in Chelsea. It is wherever I am, and wherever I visit.
What do you feel your portfolio says about the city?
It's the city that never sleeps.
Do you find your lack of vision enhances your photography in any way?
I can't say that it enhances it. In many way, it interferes, and makes me not really know what's going on sometimes. But soon as you lose your sight all your other senses become so much stronger. I can go in a restaurant and hear each conversation around me, which is only confusing, really.
What's the best picture you haven't taken?
I always have my cameras, whether I'm on the street or in bed with someone. I've had it every moment of every day since 1972. For 43 years. I used to count the numbers every time I missed the shot. After I got to 150, I stopped counting. When there are big groups of tourists, I wish I could rent a helicopter and shoot downwards. My favorite shot I did take is the triangular shaped Flatiron Building looking from the roof down. And when they were building the World Trade Center, I hung off the roof to get a piece of history.
Tell me more about the World Trade Center photo.
I snuck into the building. I held onto the strap of my camera and I said, "I'm here to photograph the building," so they thought I was important, and they believed me and gave me a hardhat. The elevator only went up to floor 60-something. I had to walk up 40 flightshow able-bodied I was back thenand then when I got to the top floor, I photographed all the workers and they all posed for me. And then I asked if I could go to the roof and the foreman said, "You can't." And I said, "Would you go with me?" I sort of flirted with him. And then we went up to the roof, and when I heard noise over the edge, he said, "That's the men over the building," and I said, "Could you hold my legs?" I leaned over the edge and took a vertical.
Tell me about your photo "Central Park Teens." Do you remember what was playing on the boombox?
Oh, that's an early one. They were just hanging out. They were probably listening to something I couldn't relate to. The teens and the boombox and the graffitiit all just looked like it blended together.
How about "Endangered Species?"
I love that shot. All the women busy chatting with the one man in the middle asleep! I just think it's so funny.
What kind of camera do you use?
You couldn't use my words because I would say a piece of shit. It's a $40 camera that I bought off eBay. A Nikon 35mm point and shoot autofocus camera.
What is it you prefer about film?
Everything. I have file cabinets. 3,000 small contact sheets. They're all in date order in file cabinets. The bottom cabinet is the '70s, then the '80s, '90s, then the 2000s, and each sheet of paper has 36 exposures. I pick out my favorite few shots and have them made into a snapshot for myself. Then when I want to have it made larger, that's when it costs me to make a big print.
Do you ever shoot with digital?
On the days when there's a gay parade or a Halloween parade, my attendants and I use digital to take thousands of photos and choose favorites.
Who are your biggest inspirations?
My close friend Lisette Model. She was a very famous photographer who died in her 70s in 1983although I never went to one of her classes, because I don't like education. People ask me what books I've read; I haven't. Nobody's influenced me because I've never read. People also tell me they don't need to edit my words. But two other big influences are Weegee the Famous and Andre Kertesz.
What do you want your legacy to be?
That I was a tough chick. A tough cookie. And I changed laws to help people. No one's ever asked me that. Interesting.