Photos by Ruta Smith

Second-Chance Snaps

When I tell someone on a photo shoot, “I’m just testing my light,” I’m usually lying. After all, telling people to “just act natural!” never works. Could you act naturally with someone pointing a camera in your face?

Some of my favorite shots come in the moments before and after the photos the City Paper art director chooses to be published in our weekly issues.

So we filed through a bunch of our favorite shots from last year to find those moments — the photos that didn’t run in 2021.

Life Raft Treats Ice Cream Sandwich “Lasagna”

Valentine’s Day, Life Raft Treats

You would be surprised how many shoots happen on the floor with big massive doors open. This is on a warehouse floor at Cynthia Wong’s James Island commissary kitchen with an open garage door just out of frame. 

In case you can’t tell, squares give me anxiety — they never fit right. Having a square cake on a square box on a square plate on a square newspaper … That’s why all these are slightly turned.

Mounting the cannon, History of Charleston for Morons

I knew what I was getting myself into with these guys — I’ve worked with Greg Tavares from Theatre 99 before. I didn’t ask them to bring any props, but they did. They came fully prepared.

Complete History of Charleston for Morons performers embarked on a local tour bus act in 2021.

I wanted to do some simple shots along the Battery — it’s near where they start their comedy bus tour.

My son was with me that day, and he was climbing on the cannon. So I very jokingly said, “What if you guys did that?” I did not expect three grown-up men to get up there. It’s big. They had to help each other up. They were struggling — it made me laugh so much. I wanted to make sure this picture saw the light of day.

Shiki owner Hae Gon “David” Park

Sushi Chef, Shiki

It’s always special when you go into family-run businesses like Shiki, because the families always make things their own ways. They’re just very specific, so I just follow their lead. Here, the restaurant was closed, and the light was just beautiful, it was quiet, and owner David Park is just shaving this cucumber.

Herring dish, Pink Bellies

When I saw Pink Bellies chef-owner Thai Phi was doing this dish, my jaw dropped. It’s a very, very traditional Eastern European dish I grew up eating in Lithuania during Christmas, and he nailed it. Usually, it has pickled herring, boiled carrots, beets, potatoes and egg. It has a very distinct look because you have to layer it.

I talked to him about it, and he said he wanted his restaurant to offer unexpected things.

Cooks in the kitchen, Chasing Sage

As I took this picture, I kind of knew it wouldn’t make it into the paper, because there’s no real space to put words in the corners, the people in the photo are just too busy or the details would have kind of disappeared because of the size of the paper or the quality of the print.

Cocktail, Coterie

I appreciate the restaurants that put in the extra details. As a photographer, it’s a chance to pull out your macro lens, and you can get up close to capture those details.

Coterie serves inventive cocktails and cuisine that imparts Indian flavors into classic Charleston dishes.
Melissa Polutta started Trash Gurl in 2009.

Melissa Polutta, Trash Gurl

I really wanted to get a shot of one of her containers in a very recognizable spot. It was 6 o’clock in the morning, so it wouldn’t be busy, and I needed to stand in the middle of King Street.

This was probably one of my favorite stories of the year. The way it started, during one of our meetings, someone said, “What do you guys think about those purple Trash Gurl containers?”

I also got an elevated shot where they put me on a tractor and lifted me up — I was about 25-weeks pregnant — so, that was fun.

Bodega’s espresso martini

Espresso martini, Bodega

This was for a Dish story about espresso martinis, and I’ve heard even more about them since then. But this shot specifically, I think every photographer loves that — the perfect light, the drip. It might not be the best shot for the paper, but it’s a fun picture.

When you take so many cocktail pictures, it’s just a lot of the same. And getting this shot is not necessarily difficult, but a lot of things need to happen for the drip in the shot to look like that.

Distillation column, Charleston Distilling

I had heard Charleston Distilling moved from its old location on King Street because the owners said they outgrew it. When I was done with a shoot at the new location on Johns Island, I was packing and just happened to glance up. For all that’s said about Charleston being a small place, this 50-foot component of the still is pretty massive.

The Perfect Portrait

Journalist Fernando Soto

I always look at the light — the way the light hits the face. Sometimes the location is important, sometimes not. What’s behind them?

Sometimes I’ll get lucky with one of those, “Hey, I’m testing my light” shots. But usually the good shot will come from the beginning or the end, it’s never really in the middle of the shoot. Sometimes they’re overthinking it, or toward the end they’re just more comfortable.

Sometimes, like with Fernando Soto (right), they’re comfortable in front of the camera. And we rarely shoot people without some kind of public eye on them. Anyway, we live in an age when everyone is super aware of cameras around them.

Stay cool. Support City Paper.

City Paper has been bringing the best news, food, arts, music and event coverage to the Holy City since 1997. Support our continued efforts to highlight the best of Charleston with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.