Challenged Visions – John Dugdale and Flo Fox

Robert A. Schaefer Jr. discovers how John Dugdale and Flo Fox don’t let their physical challenges stand in the way of photography.

Writer / Robert A. Schaefer Jr.
Photography / John Dugdale and Flo Fox

John Dugdale
I exist as I am by John Dugdale

“Physically challenged” has not always been the buzz word it has become to describe people with disabilities. In earlier times in the United States, negative terms like “handicapped,” “retarded” or “crippled” were used to describe persons with disabilities. Little thought was given to either their quality of life or inclusion in society; often families of disabled persons banished them to private rooms of the house or sent them to institutions.

In sharp contrast to these earlier practices the 31st New York City Marathon, as has become the standard since the mid-70’s, included physically challenged participants who were given a 30-minute early start over the other participants.They were a very visible part of this event. On that same day the Museum of Natural History, the Margaret Mead Film and Video Festival 2000 and Aperture Foundation presented Shooting Blind: Photographs by the Visually Impaired. Unfortunately, I was not able to attend this one-day slide show event, but it made me question how one would be able to create photographs with a physical challenge especially a visual one.To gain insight into this area, I interviewed two fine art photographers who live and work with disabilities on a daily basis.

John Dugdale
Trying Their Wings, 1984 Flo Fox

Walking along 23rd Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues in Manhattan, you might see a slender middle-aged woman in a motorized wheelchair being assisted in pressing her camera’s shutter release button. This would be Flo Fox. Florence Fox was born on September 26, 1945 in Miami, Florida, where her father had a honey factory. He died of a heart attack when she was two, and her mother moved Flo, her two sisters and brother to Woodside, Queens where she and her late husband were originally from. Flo’s mother passed away when she was fourteen and at that time she decided that she would never use the name Florence again – and ran away from home. Later she went to live with an aunt in Levittown, Long Island. When she finished high school – “just by the skin of my teeth,” as she puts it – she moved in with her sister in Queens, where she worked as a paste-up artist for the Yellow Pages. Perhaps this is why her imagery often uses graphic elements. She left the Yellow Pages in 1964, got married and gave birth to her son, Ron During this period Fox worked as a freelance tailor, most notably for Revlon, Inc. She also pursued art in the form of drawing and painting portraits. In 1972 she used her first big paycheck to buy a Minolta SRT 101.

She was born blind in one eye, so, according to her, she was an automatic photographer because she never needed to close an eye to take a picture. She lost the vision in her other eye in 1975 and was declared legally blind just at the time that she photographed herself nude for Playboy and Penthouse. It was at this time that one of Flo’s sisters was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. Soon thereafter Flo began experiencing numbness in one of her hands and legs and had herself tested for MS. The results were positive. She has remained determined to not let this news change anything in her career as a fine arts photographer. This has not been easy with her direction in the medium which is predominately street imagery of people and places predominately set in New York City. It has necessitated her getting out of her apartment to capture it, although she also does a lot of nude Polaroid portraits in her Chelsea studio.

When asked how her disabilities have affected her work, Fox said that she started seeing interfering patterns in 1975 and soon thereafter could no longer focus on an image because of dead nerve endings. As her MS progressed, Flo’s muscle tone deteriorated and she went from using a cane to a motorized scooter. In August 1999 a van transporting her made a sharp turn, and Flo fell over in the scooter, subsequently causing her to lose the use of her right hand. She still takes a camera with her wherever she goes but now needs to ask someone to push the shutter release button. Even this has not dimmed Flo’s spirits. “People can be strong no matter what,” she told me,

I try to set an example by taking the negative and making it positive – both in life and in my work.

Among her more many notable accomplishments, she was given the first autofocus camera by Konica to field test for the magazine Camera 35. She was even recognized in Ripley’s Believe It or Not as a blind photographer and originated a course in photography at the Lighthouse for the Blind. Typical of her sense of humor, Flo described this literally as “the blind leading the blind” – positively! She has also presented seminars on her photography at the Nikon House and Park West Camera Club in New York City; at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. As a photographer, she has also appeared on the Today show, Tomorrow with Tom Snyder and Live with Regis and Kathie Lee. At one point she hosted her own cable TV show called The Foto Flo Show. Documentaries on her life have also been done for Japanese (1994) and German (1997) television.

Flo had a one-person exhibit (in which she shared a wall with Bill Brandt) at the Photographers Gallery in London, UK in 1974 and another at the Nikon House in New York in 1987. Later that same year she had a two-person show with “Weegee the Famous” in Paris, France. In 1998 she had a one person exhibition at the Icebox Gallery in Minneapolis, MN. Group shows include the IBM Gallery (now called the Newseum) in New York City, the International Center of Photography in New York City and the Meguro Museum of Art in Tokyo, Japan. Her work has also been published in Black and White New York. Complete volumes of her work include Asphalt Gardens and My True Story. Fox was published in Life Magazine’s September 1994 issue. Her next scheduled exhibition is at the Times Square Hotel (255 West 43rd Street) where she often exhibits her work.

My second interview takes place on a beautiful fall day in the West Village of Manhattan with photographer John Dugdale. He opens the door for me, and as we ascend the stairs to his studio, I am transported into the19th century.The house is a brick federal built in 1828, and his studio is the former attic. There is an elevated sleeping area at one end of the studio and a reading area at the other. A wood slat floor in the studio supports three standing view cameras and some props. John is having his hand photographed holding some lilacs.He speaks at length with his assistant Dan Levin before the shutter is released. Potentially this image will be used in his upcoming exhibition, Epic of the Starry Heavens, at the Wessel & O’Connor Gallery in a month. John explains that his poor eyesight requires that another person with good vision actually take the shot since he is legally blind. “Even so,” he relates,

I have explained the concept to Dan so exactly that it is my image, and it is this,my art, which has saved my life.

John was born in Stamford, Connecticut on June 2,1960. He has a sister Kathleen who is four years younger and a brother, Robert, who is eight years younger and with whom he shares a birthday.The three siblings are close, and John regularly uses them in his photography.This might not seem so unusual; except when one sees that the images with his brother and sister are nudes. Few photographers have explored the realm of nudity with adult family members. John’s images in this area reveal a love and trust that the three share with each other.

John says that he started taking family album pictures at age 11 but it wasn’t until the 11th grade that he became serious about photography. One of his teachers referred him to the School of Visual Arts in New York City where he studied from 1980 to 1984. During that time an instructor at SVA told him that his imagery was not in keeping with the trends of that time. Luckily John had defined his photographic style prior to attending SVA, so this criticism did not thwart him An image John created for a class assignment to photograph flowers led to commercial work for Ralph Lauren, Bloomingdales, Bergdorf Goodman and Martha Stewart. His career had started to thrive; unfortunately, his health was another matter.

The Perfume of Parlors by John Dugdale.
The Perfume of Parlors by John Dugdale.

Although John tested HIV-positive in 1982, he did not seek treatment because he felt that he would be fine. However, the end of a long-standing affair combined with work-related stress caused his immune system to fall apart in1993. Soon after he discovered that he had CMV retinitis; a condition which usually occurs in the last stages of AIDS and causes blindness. Along with this he had a stroke which left him paralyzed for seven months. His career came to a halt.”So what should I tell your clients?” John’s manager asked him. John replied,

Tell them the truth.

He thought he would never work again and almost didn’t.He contracted AIDS-related viral meningitis, pneumonia and suffered six more strokes. From November to December 1993 John’s doctors were unable to make a diagnosis, and he felt his sight slipping further away. Had this all happened months earlier he probably would have died because there was absolutely no medicine on the market at that time which could treat his condition. Instead of dying, he became a blind photographer, but there was a positive side to it. He wasn’t afraid anymore; just glad to be alive. His illness had freed him to leave commercial photography and delve into the type of work he had always felt that he was born to do. Besides himself and his family, he also does portraits of friends and acquaintances more often nude than clothed. All exude his own particular brand of vibrant dignity.

photograph by John Dugdale
‘neath the Eiffel Tower, 1987 Flo Fo by John Dugdale

Dugdale’s portraits as well as landscapes and still lifes are printed almost exclusively using the cyanotype process. Several years earlier, on an outing to Jones Beach, John had met John Wessel and Billy O’Connor of the Wessel & O’Connor Gallery. He had previously participated in a successful exhibition at their gallery in 1991, entitled Three Photographers: Dugdale, Morrison and Villarruba ,followed by a solo show of New Photographs.When he finally got out of the hospital in December 1993, he called Wessel and O’Connor and told them that he was thinking of a new series of photographs for an exhibition which could also be published as a book. “Great!” they said and gave him six weeks to put the show together. John was very worried about the time frame, he admits, but accepted the challenge. In preparing for it he learned how to use a Kodak 6 x10 Universal camera.He feels that the huge audience for the opening of this exhibition was a show of support,”But nobody was prepared for how emotional it turned out to be. People were standing in front of the work with tears streaming down their faces.” One of the guests that evening was Jack Woody, who invited John to produce a book for Twin Palm Publishers, and thus Lengthening Shadows Before Nightfall was published in 1995. John confides:

It was a bit of a rush job, they wanted to have it published before my eyesight left.

Fortunately, this never happened. The CMV did destroy one eye but stopped with his other one – a fact his doctors can’t explain. John tells me to close one eye and imagine putting six layers of wax paper over the other. “That’s my vision,” he says. Fortunately, over the course of eight years, his mind has learned to compensate for this. “I miss reading (he listens to his favorite poets, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson on tape) and driving, and I hate banging my head on things I can’t see. But I feel I can do anything now instead of the reverse.” And that he has done: he has had an exhibition every year since his first big Wessel & O’Connor show. This year I attended his November opening, and it was wonderful to witness so many people honoring his work. Besides his New York gallery, John also shows at the Kathleen Ewing Gallery in Washington, DC, as well as the Catherine Edelman Gallery in Chicago, plus a host of others in the US and around the world. He has published three other books this year: Life’s Evening Hour by the August Press Limited, New Suns will Arise by the Hyperion Press and The Clandestine Mind by 21st: The Journal of Contemporary Photography. In addition, there have also been countless articles written about him and three video films produced. Besides his photography, John relates that he has also become a kind of spokesperson and promotional speaker for The Archive Project, which archives the work of artists with HIV/AIDS. In describing his first speaking engagement for The Archive Project, John says,”There were a lot of people, and I didn’t have anything prepared, but I just got up to the podium and the words came tumbling out.” When I ask John what his biggest challenge is, he doesn’t mention any of his physical limitations. Instead, he explains that his biggest challenge is keeping his imagery fresh. He has become very connected to the works of Emily Dickinson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman. When photographing friends and family, John explains that he looks for the mind underneath.

It’s all about illustrating an idea, not grabbing a moment. Even I have to wait to drain a facade or guise before I take a picture of myself.

He hands me the frontal nude self-portrait, A Temple of Thy Spirit Divine which will be seen by the public for the first time at his November opening. His explanation is visibly clear.

Like many people in general and possibly more so those working in the fine arts, I sometimes feel overwhelmed by the problems of productivity and promotion. Meeting and talking with photographers Flo Fox and John Dugdale has helped me to put such problems into perspective.

Besides Flo Fox and John Dugdale, the author would like to thank photography collector John Bennette and photographer Mark Kessell for their help with this article.

Robert A. Schaefer Jr. is a New York based photographer working in the Cyanotype and other alt processes.

This article was published by Orville Robertson in Fotophile Magazine.

Books about or by John Dugdale
Lengthening Shadows Before Nightfall

Lengthening Shadows Before Nightfall

by John Dugdale

Haunting, evocative nude studies.


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