Flo Fox is legally blind—one eye dark since birth, the other distorted by multiple sclerosis—but from her tenth-floor home at the Associated Blind housing complex in Chelsea, she still gets a good view of the neighbors. “Sometimes they get naked,” the 64-year-old says, chortling. “They figure nobody in this building can see them.”
As we talk, she maneuvers her electric wheelchair through the cramped but tidy one-bedroom, where photo binders are stacked in the linen closet and an aerial shot of the Flatiron Building hangs over her bed. This is where, on Thanksgiving 2008, she got a knock on the door from Joan Rivers. The comedian was doing her annual delivery of hot meals for God’s Love We Deliver, documentary crew in tow. As seen in Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, Rivers was taken aback by Fox’s photographs and later tears up as she watches (on YouTube) a 1980 Tom Snyder interview with a still-vigorous Fox. Back then, Fox was a sassy downtown art star. “I thought, ‘Here’s a girl who’s such a New Yorker—smart, edgy, bohemian,’ ” Rivers says to me now. “And how unfair, that this is where it lands. [But] a New Yorker’s a fighter.” Fox, who received a standing ovation at a recent screening of A Piece of Work, views the past few decades less drastically. “There’s a lot of heaviness,” she says, her voice muddied by the lung cancer she’s been treating since 2005. “You just take a deep breath, take funny photos, and not give a shit.”
There has been a lifetime of deep breaths. Fox was raised in Woodside and orphaned at 14, whereupon she ended up with a relative who sexually abused her. So she struck out on her own: “I took my sewing machine and a shopping bag of clothing and got on the subway,” she says. “I roamed around and stayed with friends.” Eventually, she fled for Manhattan, where she found work designing costumes, working for the Public Theater and A Chorus Line—earning, at one point, $1,000 a day on commercial shoots.
In the late seventies, she began losing sight in her left eye, and then control of her limbs; it took doctors two years to diagnose her with M.S. No longer able to sew, she switched to photography, aided by an autofocus Polaroid camera. She spent several years chronicling the rot of Times Square and the rise of graffiti, her best work capturing the sly juxtapositions of late-night city life: a madly grinning bunny costume laid over trash cans, a biker casually parking his assless chaps on a diner stool. Her work was exhibited in London and Paris, and in the early eighties, she had her own A&E talk show. Charlie’s Angels star Kate Jackson optioned Fox’s life rights for a never-produced TV movie. Fox even dated the real-estate tycoon Sylvan Lawrence. “He wanted to give me a loft,” recalls Fox. “I said, ‘And be a kept woman? Nope.’ ”
As her mobility diminished, Fox moved into her next career, that of media-savvy disabled-rights advocate. From a scooter, she’s railed against business owners who failed to fix their sidewalks, sometimes buying her own concrete to build ramps. All along, she kept shooting, chronicling the surging homeless population and cajoling guys into posing for a series of penis pictures titled “Dicthology” (she’s hoping to revive the project, and coyly offers me a modeling gig).
Nowadays, Fox can move only her left arm, and shoots with an aide who points and clicks as she directs. M.S. is “like I’m looking through a net that keeps glittering and wiggling. It’s a pretty way of seeing things.” She shows me recent photos, including one depicting a stack of NYPD barricades leaned against a wall, inadvertently forming a Star of David. It’s both surface-simple and deeply ironic, a blip of urban weirdness that might otherwise have gone unnoticed.
In September, one of her most popular photos, a 1978 shot of Basquiat graffiti, will be exhibited in Madrid. Lately, she’s been getting her archives scanned and making video montages for YouTube. She’s hoping the movie will bring attention back to her work. And, of course, she wouldn’t mind shooting Rivers herself—who says she’s amenable, under one condition. “Only if she retouches,” Rivers says, laughing. “If Flo doesn’t retouch, she ain’t never seeing this Jew again.”