Kelly Puleio has always felt comfortable behind a camera.
At 17, she was getting an early start at the nightlife scene by drinking whiskey at hometown bars in New Jersey. And while studying fine art photography in college, she spent much of her time shooting nude women in bars, laid out over the wood grain, under the spell of a couple shots of bourbon to loosen them up. It makes sense that after a college career weaved with a life of working behind the stick and getting off way past last call, Puleio became San Francisco’s go-to cocktail photographer.
“Shooting cocktails is a natural progression of what I want to do,” she said. “They’re both incredible passions of mine and I’ve been able to marry them in a way where they feed each other.”
Since Puleio made the full transition to cocktail photography, her striking drink photos are found on many of The City’s bar and restaurant websites along with a number of cocktail books. She most recently finished shooting a book on negronis with Gary Regan, the author of “The Cocktailian” column in the San Francisco Chronicle.
At home, she makes her own barrel-aged cocktails and bitters, and has a collection of more than 2,000 antique coupes, flutes and drinking vessels that she’s gathered on travels around the globe.
Puleio and I chatted over a banana daquiri and a corpse reviver at Churchill, her favorite neighborhood joint.
While in college, she said it was difficult to tell her father that she was photographing sex workers at trucker motels in sketchy parts of New Jersey — all while pouring drinks to pay the rent and partying as hard as any 21-year-old.
“I think my dad thought that I was gonna be lost for a really long time,” Puleio said. “I’m sure he can’t believe that I get paid to shoot cocktail photos.”
Although she doesn’t call herself a gypsy, mostly because of her refined taste for good food and expensive drinks, Puleio has been around. Whether she was studying, working at bars (or just drinking in them), Puleio has made her way from Jersey to Philadelphia to Sacramento to San Francisco to Berlin and back to San Francisco, with lots of stops in between.
“Bartending is cash money and it’s fun, but I thought that I should probably do something with this expensive art education of mine,” she said.
After her return to The City and a stint at Cigar Bar, Puleio was told by the owners that they wanted her to shoot photos for their website. From there, Puleio made the commitment to shoot photos full time. Working alongside food photographer Eric Wolfinger, Puleio dove deeper into the bar and restaurant scene where she found that she enjoyed shooting cocktails most.
“He was a chef, I was a bartender — we grew up together in our photography careers,” Puleio said. “But I knew I couldn’t leave the bar. It’s the environment that I shoot in where I’m most comfortable.”
In the future, Puleio hopes to establish small brands through imagery and eventually major booze companies by rebranding and face-lifting big brands. In the meantime, Puleio works seven days a week, convinced that the appeal of a mixed drink is nothing short of arousing.
“I’ve spent a good part of my life shooting sexy women and sexy cocktails,” Puleio said. “There’s definitely sex in everything that I see about a bar.”
It’s hard to argue with that. There are the exchanged glances and words with your barkeep; the vulnerability of not knowing what you want, and someone giving you what you need; the matched confidence behind a bartender when asked for an uncommon concoction; the shake, the stir, the strain, the pour. Hot stuff.
“People go to restaurants for that kind of meal. I go to bars for that kind of experience,” Puleio said. “There’s something about sex and cocktails that resonates very deeply — if they don’t make you feel sexy, then I don’t know what does.”