September has been an amazing month for arts and culture with things happening all over the city. One of my favorite events, the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, has sadly drawn to a close, but there are plenty of things to do throughout the fall season. The Women’s Film Festival concludes with the lesbian romcom “Jess Plus None” on Oct. 1; Heather Raquel Phillips’ exhibition Margin/Margin, a multimedia project that highlights QTBIPOC in leather culture, is on display at the William Way LGBT Community Center through Nov. 9; and one of my perennial favorites, Gunnar Montana continues his successful Fringe run with extended shows through the end of October.
If you haven’t seen any of Montana’s work, it’s time to get with the program. One of the most innovative and charismatic dancers/choreographers in the city, Montana always puts on a dazzling and challenging show with a talented cast and crew. One individual in the Gunnar Universe is Joe McFetridge. McFetridge is the photographer responsible for the dramatic promotional images for the show. A little darker than last year’s Motel Montana and just in time for Halloween, “BLACK WOOD” has the audience travel to a haunting, stirring, supernatural forest. The immersive theater experience has it all — witches, scorned lovers, and creatures of the night; back flips, hair whips, aerial, and as always with a GM production, a little stage magic.
McFetridge is a talented fellow who creates magic in his own right. He’s a successful wedding photographer based out of Philadelphia and runs two brands of his own. His first brand, Love By Joe Mac, deals with weddings, engagements and family portraits while his second brand, Joe Mac Creative, covers business headshots and corporate photography. We talked to him between clicks of the camera about his long journey behind the lens.
As Julie Andrews once sang, let’s start at the very beginning. Where are you from?
I grew up in Western Chester County around a lot of cornfields. There wasn’t a lot to do there and I spent a lot of time exploring the woods, riding my bike and hanging out. I lived there until I was 16. I bounced around a little bit and now I live in Ardmore. It’s a beautiful area.
Do you have siblings?
Yes. I have four sisters — two younger, two older.
A fellow middle child!
Yes, and the only boy. It was alway fun trying to balance the drama between the older two and the younger two.
Were you tortured by your sister to play dress up and have tea parties?
I was probably the one bullying them to do those things! I used to love to make costumes for my sisters and would try to do their makeup for them.
What did the folks do?
My dad was a roofer and my mom was a stay-at-home mom.
Where do you think you got your artistic bent?
I was very shy as a kid and wasn’t surrounded by any art in my home life but my grandmother, who I got to see occasionally, was a big patron of the arts and she really encouraged me to do what I loved and fostered my creativity.
Granny to the rescue!
Always. She saved me more times than I can count.
What were some of your extracurricular activities at school?
Um, I went to a very strange, small, religious school that didn’t have a lot of extracurricular activities. So I spent a lot of time by myself doing my own thing. Exploring nature and waiting to turn 18 so I could get out of there! I grew up in a very extreme Fundamental Baptist church that was really intense and very close-minded. I knew I was gay at a very young age so it made existing in that world very challenging.
I’m sure. Did you hear a lot of explicit homophobia?
Absolutely! I experienced homophobia for as long as I can remember. I think people knew that I was gay before I fully understood it. And as I said, I knew at a young age so there were a lot of years that were challenging before I got out. They even tried conversion therapy and after about a year, when that didn’t work, I was kicked out of my house and church. [Smiling] I was able to have a much better life from then on!
I’m glad you landed on your feet. I’m sure that took some doing.
Queer people, we are survivors! We know how to turn lemons into lemonade.
When did you start getting into the arts? You studied ceramics first, yes?
Yes. When I got into college at Penn State, I studied art education and ceramics. In my first career, I was a school teacher and I spent six years teaching art in public schools.
When did you get into photography?
I got my first camera when I was about 10, and it was my little escape. I was THAT kid, the one in the family who would photograph everything during vacations and outings. I loved getting the film developed and making family albums. I would go out and take pictures of everything and I loved it but I never thought photography could be a career. I was like, “That’s not a thing you can do, right?” Only special people get to have creative careers. It wasn’t until I was teaching that I started doing photography gigs on the side and eventually turned my side gig into my main gig!
What was the photograph that you were most proud of as a kid?
There was a festival in West Chester and they had a photography competition for kids and I took this black-and-white photo of trees in the snow and I won. It was the first time I’d won an award for anything creative. I won $5 and I still have the check they gave me!
I love it. So back to school. What were some of the highlights of being a teacher and what were some of the challenging parts?
I loved working with kids and getting to see all of the creativity and energy that they bring to a space, especially when I was teaching high school ceramics. I got to really see future artists passionate about what they wanted. The challenging part, as most teachers would say, is working with the administration and all of the other things that come along with teaching that make the job a lot harder than it needs to be.
We’re screening a film on Sunday that was produced by Sheryl Lee Ralph from “Abbott Elementary.” I think that show sheds light on the plight of teachers vs. administration. Were you openly gay as a teacher?
I was. I got a little pushback, just kind of side eyes and comments from other teachers about having pictures of me and my husband on my desk or whatnot. But in other classrooms, teachers had pictures of their spouses and families. Why couldn’t I?
Bravo! Did you have any students come out to you?
No. I guess it’s a new world. These days, they come out on their own or they just are who they are and feel no need to “come out” and it’s not a big deal. [Laughing] They don’t need us.
True. How did you come out?
Growing up, most people just assumed I was gay. When I finally left the religious school and went to public school, I started coming out to everyone I knew! I told my best friend Holly and told her if anybody asked, she could confirm it.
Nice. So let’s jump to your current situation and what you’re doing now. You have two companies, right?
Yes, Joe Mac Creative and Love By Joe Mac. I work with a lot of nightlife entertainers — drag queens, burlesque performers, drag kings — the whole gamut of it. I do a lot of portraits and I also do commercial shoots. I also do a bit of wedding photography. I started full time but I got burnt out doing that very quickly. So now I only do about 10 or 12 a year and I focus my clientele on the queer community.
I did wedding videography for a while, so I know how intense it is. What was the craziest thing you’ve witnessed?
I was helping a friend photograph a wedding. And I found out on the way to the wedding that the groom and the maid of honor were part of the group of people that beat up that gay couple in the Gayborhood years ago. I didn’t find out until I was five minutes away. It was a horrible day.
I can imagine. What are some of the touching moments that you’ve had?
Getting to see the way queer people have really fought to create their own traditions and their own way of doing things. It’s just so beautiful to see love that I can relate to and see people break traditions and figure out how to have a wedding that means something to them. I just shot a wedding a few weeks ago and the two grooms weren’t really into super traditional things. So they started off with a cocktail hour and then had a 10-minute ceremony before a sit-down reception and an hour-long drag show with some of the best performers in Philadelphia. I loved it.
That is pretty cool. In terms of the other photography that you do, your corporate or portrait work, what’s one of your favorite projects?
I of course love working with Gunnar. We have worked together for a few years now. And it’s always great when he proposes an idea or a project and we get to collaborate together to figure out how we’re going to execute it. I also really love working with the producers and the cast from Snatcherella. They’re an amazing group of people that are very fun to work with. I help do the marketing for the late-night showcase.
We were talking about weddings and I forgot to ask: Are you married?
Yes, my husband and I have been together for 17 years. We met in high school.
[Laughing] So who did the photography at your wedding?
Tyler Boye. That’s how I got into wedding work. He shot my wedding and as we were talking about the plans, he mentioned he was looking to hire associate shooters and the next week, he hired me. We’re still good friends to this day.
That’s a cool story. Tell me about the man you married.
Michael — he works in talent management and he is my favorite little Italian meatball. He’s also one of five. We both grew up in the same hometown but we didn’t meet until the last few months of high school and we’ve been together ever since.
Bravo! I know you said coming out was a gradual thing but in terms of becoming part of the gay community, what’s the first thing you remember?
When I turned 18, I heard that there was this thing called Pride in Philadelphia. And so my older sister Megan, who was out of the church at that point, picked me up and we snuck off to Pride. It was our first time and it was very exciting.
What was the thing that surprised you the most?
Just seeing so many people all together being out. It was like, “whoa!” I knew they existed in the world. I had just never seen it. It was like an idea that you saw on television and I got to see it in real life. It brought me a lot of joy.
Sweet. So let’s talk a little bit more about “BLACK WOOD.”
Yes, I helped to do the poster for the show. And when they first got all of the cast together, I did the marketing for that. And I’ve helped Gunnar with some of the photos for Instagram and social media and things like that.
How did you get involved?
In March of 2020, he saw my work and reached out to me. We set up a shoot and we meshed really well. We have great communication skills, which helps to execute ideas and make things happen. It’s always a fun journey working with him and the cast. I just love his work. I mean, he is incredibly talented. And he has this skill of knowing exactly what he wants and fighting for it and making it happen. I can’t imagine how much stuff he has to go through and deal with to make all of these productions happen. It’s quite remarkable.
Yes, and he’s got such a twisted little brain. When you see some of his pieces like “Basement,” you’re like, “Oh my God, I hope I don’t run into this guy anywhere.” And then you meet him and he’s such a sweet, funny guy.
Yup, a little teddy bear, silly and goofy.
OK. Random questions: What’s the worst hairstyle you’ve had?
I used to straighten my hair and one time, I thought it would be a good idea to get black lowlights and I ended up looking like a skunk!
What’s your favorite picture of Michael?
He’s a big “Star Wars” fan so for May 4th, he dressed up as the Mandalorian and Princess Leia and I have two great pictures from that. And I love any photos of him and my dog.
What’s an alcohol you can never drink again?
Jägermeister! We drank that at the first college party I ever went to and never again. I can’t even stand the smell.
Let’s wrap up with some tips for budding artists.
Tips I would give to any people who are passionate about pursuing photography? Number one: Just keep going. I am a big advocate for learning on the job. It’s funny. I taught art. But I never taught photography, because I always say if you want to learn photography, come with me. And we’re gonna do it together. I’d love to show you and it’s something that it’d be like a very active way of learning.
Two: Find the community or the subject matter that really excites you and do your best to focus on that. I’m very fortunate that I get to work with a lot of people in the queer community and in queer spaces. Because growing up, I never in a million years thought that this could be something that I do. And I’m very grateful for all my queer family that I get to work with to help them showcase their beauty and diversity.