There is a saying in Delaware that it isn’t Six Degrees of Separation, it’s more like two. I will go a step further and assert that one of those degrees is Joe del Tufo. (You thought I was going to name that other Joe, didn’t you?) But think about it. As Joe del Tufo is one of the state’s premier photographers and as all businesses live and die based on their ability to create the next buzz-worthy Instagram moment, he is on the pulse of everything that Delaware has to offer. He is on first name basis with many of the national musicians who pass through Wilmington. He has experienced (with all five senses) the menu of the next hot restaurant before it even opens. And when Biden (that aforementioned other Joe) was about to give his presidential victory speech on Wilmington’s Riverfront, Joe del Tufo was among those few who were given advanced notice of Biden’s timeline. And before you could say, “That’s a bunch of malarkey,” del Tufo was recalled–on the fast train–from New York City where he was visiting his daughter to photograph the celebration. Ask him if he is on the short list to become the next Pete Souza, and his eyes will crinkle in a coy hint that there is a smile behind his COVID mask.
And so, while the nation holds its collective breath awaiting Biden appointments, Wilmington appreciates this gift while it has it. On a cold Sunday morning, I had the pleasure of hiking with my friend Joe, camera at the ready, and discussing all things Wilmington. It isn’t an easy thing to hike with Joe. He is constantly tuned into something off the path, above the path, beyond the path. He walks with you. Talks with you. Then, suddenly, he is nowhere to be seen. You wait for him to catch up, all the while wondering “Did I miss something?” And sure enough, when you see the photos he stopped to capture, you find out that you did. I have been hiking with Joe for several years of Sundays, and I can tell you, he has changed the way I see things.
It is no surprise to me when he explains that “I experience Wilmington through what I do. When something is interesting to me, I typically come by that through the photography, and what that creates for me.”
But it isn’t just about being the observer, the documentarian. “If I am really interested in [what I am photographing], I try to find a way to collaborate with the artist, either by capturing their work or finding ways to remix what they are doing. It creates deeper relationships, a deeper understanding of what they are trying to do.”
I asked Joe of he believes this brand of synergy is unique to Wilmington.
“I really do. It might exist in certain cities or towns, but I feel I can go up and down the state and make associations. As Delawareans, we are basically a big family. We are constantly connecting each other to other people, other opportunities. That makes it really easy for me when someone asks, ‘Hey, do you know someone who does [fill in the blank],’ and not only do I always know someone, but I feel like I am always able to give a really educated connection based on the work I am doing within the community.”
In this, Joe is the embodiment of Wilmington’s vibe. It is a light which he is able to reflect back at all of us like some giant mirror ball. You would be hard pressed to pick up a local magazine, enter The Queen or some government building, or go to a local business’s website without seeing one of Joe’s images. What he sees has become the face that Wilmington shows to the world.
It is almost funny to realize that came to his craft almost by accident. Back in the early days of his marriage to wife Keri, he wasn’t even the main photographer in the family. Joe was the design arm of a media company he helped to found, and he got sick of paying big bucks for images to use in his campaigns and websites. He bought a “crappy camera” and started taking photos to save the company money. Many expensive camera upgrades later, he left his previous company in 2015 to partner with Jim Coarse to form Moonloop Photography. Perusing the Moonloop’s website, you would be hard-pressed to find a specialization. Jim and Joe shoot everything from weddings to architecture, from concerts to food.
Because he has seen it all though his lens, I asked Joe some rapid-fire questions to get his take on his favorites throughout the city. His answers, thoughtful and inclusive, are less rapid-fire in nature and therefore, give INWilmington readers the full banquet of Wilmington’s best.
Favorite Live Music Venue INWilmington?
del Tufo: It is going to be The Queen and The Grand, the two places where I spend a lot of my time. I’m doing a lot of stuff with the Clifford Brown series, which has been all over the city, and mostly being streamed, obviously. There are some great venues out there. Christina Cultural Arts, which is probably the best non-profit in the area. Best led, most effective, and speaking of vibrant, what they are able to create there and what Ray Avery has done over the last few decades as a leader of that has been amazing. So are Jonathan Whitney and Tina Batz…when they took Clifford Brown and made it a year-round series…that’s cool for me. Wilmington has an amazing group of jazz musicians that are world class. Tony Smith is one of my favorite trumpet players. I hadn’t seen him in a while and there was a recent Clifford Brown event at the Contemporary that I went to photograph, and he was there, and it reminded me of how much I love his sound and how unique it is. If you are going outside the city…I live in Arden…spend tons of time there. The Arden Gild Hall is the place I am the most and nothing competes with it. It is a magical space. A magical building. The sound in there is incredible.
Favorite Food and Drink INWilmington?
del Tufo: The restaurant bar scene in Wilmington has changed dramatically in the last decade and hopefully will survive COVID. For me, when I want a cocktail these days it’s Crow Bar. I am really digging what they are doing there. Merchant Bar is great. Bardea is fantastic. I go there for the experience and the combination of food and drink. I’ve been spending a lot of time at Blitzen which has just opened again.
Best Takeout INWilmington?
del Tufo: The thing I’ve been doing the most is Kid Shalleen. It is good solid takeout. They really think through how to package it so when it gets to the house 15-20 min later, it is still fresh. The French fries are still crunchy. It feels like you are there. That is a challenge that most people aren’t thinking about getting that part of it right. We have been doing a lot of Crow Bar takeout, and frankly, I think all of their restaurants (Crow Bar, La Fia, Merchant Bar and even Hearth in Kennett Square) There’s just a lot that goes into the design of what they do. When we are looking to do something fun and celebrate, it is there or its Bardea.
Place to enjoy the great outdoors INWilmington?
del Tufo: Not technically in Wilmington but Alapocas State Park. That’s where I go when I want to be somewhere that is as otherworldly as you can get in the state other than somewhere like Cape Henlopen Park at the beach. There is nothing that is as unique, especially if you hike all of it, and as diverse as Alapocas. I often start right in city in Brandywine Park, and just hike uphill from there into Alapocas. It’s a blast to do; I discover new things every time.
Favorite Visual Artists INWilmington?
del Tufo: I am really excited about working on Lauren Peterson’s Appearances exhibit that is coming up at the Delaware Contemporary. A bunch of artists are working on interpretations of one of her pieces, which I think is a fantastic idea. I am humbled to be part of it, and I am also very excited to see what everyone else came up with. I am also really excited to see what Rick Hidalgo is coming up with next. I was just blown away by his last work, and I know he’s been working pretty hard on his new pieces. I haven’t seen anything yet. Hopefully I will photograph him again this year and experience it again that way.
Favorite Politician INWilmington?
del Tufo: In Wilmington, I go straight to Mayor Purzycki. Mike. I think he’s solid. He’s done a great job leading, and I think he will continue to do a great job leading. I remember when he first took over as mayor, he said this is going to be a one-term thing, and I’m like, ‘No, it’s not.’ But I think he is the right person at the right time. He’s had a lot of challenges, but he is a good balance of understanding, having empathy and also not taking any crap. When I think about leadership in the city, I think about him. I am also close enough working with him to realize the extent where you have so much on your shoulders. If something goes wrong in the city, it is your burden, and your responsibility. It’s just so much, and he does it. With grace. His results show.
Favorite Hidden gem INWilmington?
del Tufo: I think of Nomad. The balance of music, drinks and just the experience there is very unique. They have a lot of great jazz music there, but they have a lot of great general music there.
Favorite Community Organizations/Non-profits INWilmington?
del Tufo: I previously mentioned Christina Cultural Arts. The Grand. Creating an extension of city education by being a space for arts. It’s insane. If you look up the number of kids that they have from surrounding schools that they have that come to experience multiple events at the grand, whether it is music… magic…fun types of thing, but also education…learning how to perform and work like that. I am hoping we see that back again at The Queen, like when World Café Was there. Getting hands-on experience for kids, getting them really connected to what’s possible. Very similar in the way those three organizations: The Grand, (previously) The Queen and Christina Cultural Arts really are instilling the importance of arts in young kids.
Favorite Event INWilmington?
del Tufo: I think the one that I look forward to every year that has become ingrained in my DNA is Ladybug. Gable Music Ventures, as much as they are everywhere, is really underappreciated in terms of their impact on the city, impact on the state, impact on the local music scene. People are always pushing for local music to get it out there, but I don’t know of anyone else who have had the effect on it that Gable has. Not that they are local, but that they think local first. And Ladybug being the largest all-female or female led music festival in the country, happening in Wilmington, DE, is a statement. And I know how hard they work to make that successful and I just don’t think you can overstate the importance of it in our city and frankly, in our country.