Flo Fox, Ironic Reality

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by Dashwood Books (here) and Two By Two Media (here). Softcover (5.25×8 inches), 20 pages, with 14 black and white photographs. There are no texts or essays included. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Ironic Reality by Flo Fox is part of the zine series published by Dashwood Books, the well-known photobook store in New York. Over the years, the zines have highlighted the work of both established and emerging artists, including the multimedia artist John Yuyi with her provocative and playful nudes on airplanes (reviewed here), as well as the work of Ari Marcopoulos, Aziz Ansari, and Katie Burnett. The bookstore’s most recent release of three publications was produced in collaboration with Two By Two Media, “a service organization dedicated to providing older (70+) women artists in New York City with the free technical, digital and marketing support they need to pursue and grow their careers.” The two other zines feature the work of Donna Ferrato and Meryl Meisler.

Flo Fox was born in Miami Beach, Florida, but when she was only two years old, her father unexpectedly died of a heart attack, and her mother decided to move back to Queens. She became an orphan when her mother died from lung cancer (Fox was only 14 years old at the time), “So I got my education on the streets. That’s why I can take naughty photos – nobody taught me right from wrong,” she often explains. Fox got her first camera, a Minolta, when she was 26 years old, and has been shooting on the streets of New York City since 1972. In the 1970s and ’80s, she hung out at Studio 54, and traveled in the same social circle as photographers like Lisette Model and André Kertész. Her archive consists of over 130,000 photographs, depicting the gritty side of NY street life, often seen with an eye for wry humor, and Fox describes her work as the “ironic reality” of New York City. Her photographs are in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian and the Brooklyn Museum. 

Fox was born blind in one eye, and when she turned 30, she developed multiple sclerosis. Totally disabled from the neck down and confined to a wheelchair since 1999, Flo shoots with an automatic camera. No longer able to hold her camera or press the shutter, she delegates the task of shooting to her attendants (under her instructions). She is also a disability advocate, helping to get ramps built all over the city. In 1978, she taught the first photography class for the blind and visually impaired to students at the Lighthouse for the Blind. In 1981, the National Access Center published her photobook titled Asphalt Gardens, collecting her black and white images of NYC from the 1970s, chronicling “an ubiquitous resistance against homogenization and conformity,” and celebrating “an indomitable human spirit struggling against a faceless system.” 

The new zine, unsurprisingly titled Ironic Reality, features Fox’s work from the 1970s and ’80s. It has the same size and design as other publications in the series. A photograph of an older man sitting on a bench seemingly talking to his dog takes up the cover; the image was taken in 1973 and is titled “Someone To Talk To”. Inside, the black and white photographs are printed full bleed or with a thin black border at the top and the bottom. There is no explanatory text, nor any other design elements on the cover or inside, and the title and the artist’s name appear on the back cover in a small cluster of text at the bottom left corner. 

Fox’s photographs present a diverse parade of urban characters, capturing the atmosphere on the sidewalks and an occasional moment of drama. The opening spread pairs a photograph of mannequin legs sticking out of a Perry Street garbage bin with a shot of two young women playfully gesticulating at each other while at neighboring phone booths. The following spread captures a group of well dressed elderly women chatting on a bench on a sunny day (many of them wearing sunglasses), with a man in the middle caught sleeping; the photograph is wittily titled “Endangered Species”, and recalls Garry Winogrand’s famous “World’s Fair” from 1964, which similarly captures a group of young women on a bench engaged in a conversation. 

Another horizontal photograph captures a busy diner, shot from a low angle, showing various people sitting on stools; it takes a moment to notice that one of the customers is drinking coffee in a leather outfit with his bare butt on the seat. Much of Fox’s work focuses on unglamorous ordinary people, seen with the attentive eye of a street photographer. The last photograph, placed on the back cover, shows a black silhouette on the wall, with a penis added in white, matching the white snow on the pavement. The image is part of Fox’s series “Dicthology”, which features various pictures of penises, both crude and playful.

Just like the other zines published in the series, Ironic Reality is a small, self-contained project, and it offers a welcome glimpse of Fox’s quietly remarkable documentation of New York. Her positive spirit and healthy humor are reflected in the energy of her photographs, creating a contagious sense of community.

Collector’s POV: Flo Fox is represented by Carter Burden Gallery (here) and Ilon Art Gallery (here), both in New York. Her work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up. 

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Mark Steinmetz, ATL

Mark Steinmetz, ATL

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