November 30, 2017 / by Maria Constanza Sanchez Chiappe, Digital & Visual Communications Associate.
¨Don’t dream about the things you want to do, just do them. Be your creative self, ¨ says Flo Fox, who Shawana, her home care worker, describes as one of the greatest people she has ever met. ¨Flo has always been way before her time” Shawana says. “I got more in contact with who I am because of her.¨
Florence Blossom Fox was born in Miami right after September’s full moon, in 1945. Her father, Paul Louise Fox, had taken the family on an adventure to Florida, where he established a honey factory that he ran for two years until he died from heart failure.
Soon Flo’s mother, Claire Sarah Bauer Fox, returned home to New York City with her three daughters and a baby boy. She raised them in Woodside, Queens, where she taught Flo how to sew at the age of five, so she could design costumes for her dolls. Little did Flo’s mother know that, after she died when Flo was just 14, sewing would be the skill that would set her daughter free.
When her mother died a relative moved into the house and began sexually abusing her. Determined to escape, she packed a bag of clothes and left home, carrying her sewing machine. Flo knew she could use the machine to survive.
“I was fourteen and a half when I left home,” she said, with a mischievous smile on her face.
She never went back. After staying in the subway and wandering aimlessly for a while, she was invited to go live in a friend’s house. “I lived there freely until my aunt found out about my situation. She decided to clean up my act, to teach me to eat with a knife and a fork.”
Flo then lived with her Aunt Loretta and Uncle Dave, her mother’s brother, until she finished high school.
After she graduated from high school, Flo and her sister Helen moved together into an apartment which they shared for about a year until Flo became pregnant and decided to get married.
With money she inherited from her parents, Flo put her husband through art school. At just 29, she was diagnosed with MS. Then the money ran out and so did her husband. Once again Flo was set free by her sewing machine – and her divorce. It was time for Flo to flow – and she did.
Working as a costume maker while raising her son, she made clothing for neighbors, three-piece suits for men, dresses and other items for women, and costumes for every holiday. Later she opened “Flo like Water,” a fancy clothing boutique in Greenwich Village. After moving on to making clothing for SoHo stores, Flo went into designing and creating costumes for TV ads, working for Revlon, Smith Corona and many other companies.
Eventually, she landed her own TV show, “The Photo Flo Show” interviewing her favorite photographers every week for almost four years, going into studios and galleries, followed them through the streets as they worked, and sharing long hours in darkrooms while their images came to life.
Making Her Mark as a Photographer
Flo first became interested in photography when she was 13. She was reading a magazine when a black and white print of people in a trolley car made an impact on her. “You could see the faces of people in an everyday type of situation. It was the first time I could really feel a picture,” she says, as she travels back in time to the exact moment in which that image by Robert Frank awoke the photographer in her.
The day she got divorced Flo bought her first camera and she has carried one on each shoulder every day since. For a dozen years she shot black and white photos of New York City. Then, one day as she walked the streets she saw color. Graffiti had taken over New York City and color film was needed – the only kind she has used ever since.
Photography took her all over. Her work has been exhibited in England, France, Italy, Tokyo, South Korea and other countries, and is in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian, the Brooklyn Museum of Art and other renowned institutions. Recently she was featured in India’s Better Photography Magazine, and earlier in the decade an article about Flo in New York Magazine noted her evolution as a disability rights advocate, as well as a renowned photographer. Flo is very glad to know that her work will live on after her, and she plans to go out in style
When the magician Houdini’s bust was stolen from his graveyard, there was no proof that the statue, once found, belonged to his tomb. Flo made a deal. She told the cemetery she had photos of Houdini’s grave – with the bust – and give them the pictures in exchange for two plots – for herself and her son – right next to Houdini’s! Her plan is for her funeral to be a big party, with those in attendance painting on her coffin.
At 72, Flo says that she has worked every moment, every day of her life. “As soon as you split, I am going back to my article,” she told me. She thinks she wants to be a writer when she grows up and is not, for sure, planning to retire any time soon.