The Interpreter

Asked to translate the artistic life in a way no college was doing could be scary for any photographer. But “scary” was what inspired artist Sam Angel to accept.

Sam Angel

By Ron Wagner

One thing you don’t have to worry about as a food photographer is the summer cavatelli recoiling in horror at your artistic vision. Sam Angel wasn’t so sure she could expect the same from humans after being commissioned to help reimagine the Watkins brand in 2016.

“I had never really ventured into portraits. I just didn’t consider myself a portrait photographer,” Angel says. “The intimacy and the responsibility I felt was involved was a bit overwhelming. I was intimidated but also very excited because in some ways I was ready to face that fear.”

Angel had made a name for herself chronicling Nashville’s booming restaurant scene after earning her bachelor of fine arts in photography from Watkins in 2012 but was surprised, to say the least, when Watkins director of communications Brendan Tapley asked if she’d be interested in using those skills to help completely reinvent the school’s brand, which would include its entire website and other materials. Nothing from the past was going to migrate to the new pages or screens to come. Instead, the college would rest on a new foundation of relevance, sophistication, and innovation, all of which would better invoke the school’s 130-year history as a launchpad for generations of seekers, thinkers, and doers. To that end, Watkins wanted to capture something elusive: the seen and unseen lifestyle of the artist, the questions and answers that drive her or him, and how those answers solve society’s challenges. Tapley wanted Angel to make the universal personal, and the personal universal.

Portraying artists in their most intimate moments of creativity seemed daunting. And yet also entirely appropriate in terms of what a conservatory for the arts promises. To Angel, it was a refreshingly unapologetic and sincere way to interpret, and honor, the artistic life. Curiously enough, what scared her about the project was also what ended up helping her: her subjects.

What is that poetic moment...That’s the desire. What we’re always looking to show is the desire.

“You get this weird idea and you’re not really sure how somebody is going to respond, but faculty members and especially the students, they’re game,” she says. “They’re already artists. They’re already thinking outside the box. They’re excited to do those kind of ambitious, unconventional projects.”

An early shoot with film student Micah Atkinson is a fine example. Learning Atkinson was once a serious soccer player, Angel tentatively suggested they try a few shots with him covered in dirt. The day had been long and they’d already explored other angles, but all it took was hearing the idea for Atkinson to go outside and start lathering himself up in dark Tennessee mud.

The result was an iconic image that made the cover of the Watkins lookbook.

“I had so many ideas for him, I couldn’t choose which one, and we spent the entire day doing photography. It was a learning experience for me to watch how he approached directing himself,” Angel remembers. “It was the very last shoot, and I didn’t think that it was going to work out. But he was so excited about it.”

Atkinson says their give-and-take collaboration was the catalyst for the outstanding final product. “I liked that she had a very clear vision … but at the same time she was still interested in personalizing it to me. It was just easy and fun and creative. We worked together really well, and that’s part of why the pictures came out really well.” The resulting photograph was a stirring comment on the grittiness of artistic pursuits, the intersection between the intellectual and the hands-on, and the willingness to wrestle with oneself to produce something of value.

Micah Atkinson by Sam Angel

Now, more than a year later, Angel has compiled a portfolio of shoots with Watkins students and faculty members, and her images were a key part of the reason Watkins won three major awards for its new look and attendant materials. Beyond the awards, people have commented on the transformation at Watkins, not just in terms of what they are seeing from Watkins but how Watkins is seeing itself.

Former instructor and current friend Kristi Hargrove was Angel’s first assignment from Tapley. A person who hates “with passion” getting her picture taken, Hargrove was nonetheless pleased with seeing herself after Angel was finished. As the chair of the Watkins fine art department, she’s been even more pleased with the way Watkins looks now.

“She’s got a unique eye. She seems to be able to catch that moment that you feel is more capturing an essence rather than just a likeness of somebody,” says Hargrove. “The website and the physical branding of the school are greatly improved. It’s been very interesting to highlight Watkins not as a building or a program but [rather] the people who make up these programs and this college, whether that be the faculty or the students.”

After producing more than 300 images so far, Angel’s nerves are largely gone, but a small question remains: How on earth does being adept at food photography translate to such adeptness at people photography?

The answer seems to lie in the person behind the camera instead of whatever or whomever is in front of it.

“Most photographers will tell you to find a certain genre or category and really specialize in that, and for some reason—maybe it’s my personality—I can’t seem to,” Angel says. “There is a style and there is an aesthetic, but personally it’s a poetic moment. I kind of can’t get away from it. It’s the thing that draws me in, what is that poetic moment? And it’s sort of hard to explain.”

Fortunately, her images were explanation enough, and she and Tapley were on the same page when it came to telling the Watkins story. “Brendan really liked the way that I photographed food and wanted me to translate that tone and mood into the work that they wanted for the school,” Angel says. “Everyone’s taking a ‘collegiate’ approach: the person sitting on a campus lawn reading a book. We’ve seen that. But is that really what higher education opens up in you? Is that really what art schools make possible? We wanted to do something more daring and at the same time something more true. A body of work that mirrors the power of the examined life. That shows the vibrancy and seriousness of what a life immersed in that means. Watkins deserves that. Honestly, what surprises me is that colleges and universities aren’t doing more of that.”

Depicting an “artistic lifestyle” meant showcasing students doing what they come to Watkins to do: seek out questions, work for their answers, reveal them to the world at large. To chronicle that process meant chronicling its very real struggles and hard-won successes. All against the backdrop of one of the country’s most talked-about cultural capitals: Nashville.

“The assignment in many ways was to interpret the life and vision of the artist here in this city, and that has so many angles. There’s Nashville itself, which has only recently become ascendant, its history and flavor and culture; and then there’s the environment at Watkins, this creative hub within the ‘It’ City, and its people, their passions, their energies; all the moments that you have with the materials you enlist to create,” Angel says. “If you’re doing pottery, you crave your hands to be molding the clay. The ink dripping off of the pallet knife if you’re painting. That’s the desire. What we’re always looking to show is the desire.”

Desire can be, in the same moment, the only thing artists have and the one thing they need. Desire to think something un-thought, desire to say what might make another anxious or uncomfortable, and desire to brave a path that is not always encouraging—in spite of the growing evidence that the creative economy is the economy of the future. Not many people, for example, expect dentists or plumbers to work on their crafts for years without guaranteed compensation or acclaim. Capturing that noble commitment was very much a part of what Angel was charged to do.

Anna Caro worked closely with Angel, who is also the manager of the Watkins print center, while earning her BFA in interior design. She hired Angel to photograph her “first project that was large enough for me to photograph” after launching her own company, MOTIV Interiors, in the spring of 2018. Watkins facing the world by showing itself looking inward is a dichotomy that works in her eyes.

Watkins Residences

“I think it’s wonderful. I think the website looks amazing,” she says. “Sam’s done a really good job connecting the emotional aspect of creativity with the technical aspect and offering that emotional experience for people who are interested in Watkins, because it is a great community there. I had a wonderful experience my four years, and while they do emphasize the technical aspect of everything, it is kind of a creative journey that you go through, and I think she captured that really well.”

A native of Monticello, Kentucky, Angel knew by middle school she wanted to be a photographer, though she admits she went to Watkins as a freshman uncertain. But she “fell in love” with the school, and that deep knowledge and affection reveals itself today in her pictures.

“My being a student there, knowing the professors, knowing the different mediums and materials that artists work in and knowing the spaces intimately, has helped me in a variety of ways, not just artistically,” she says. And this commission, which has pushed her into new territory, has pushed her personally, too. “It’s meaningful to interact with people in that moment [of portraiture] because they’re at their most vulnerable in some ways, and for them to trust me to sit in that vulnerable space with them is rewarding.”

Nashville foodies need not fear, though: You’ll still be able to salivate over the sight of one of Angel’s perfectly lined and layered pho bowls. But from now on they won’t be the only things getting her personalized balance of reality and art.

“There was always sort of this idea (in my head) that there had to be one picture that would showcase everything about t­­his person, and the moment I let go of that pressure allowed me to approach it with a more playful interaction and often get a better, more nuanced image,” she says. “I got to face that fear with people I adore, which are the faculty members and the students. And I have to say now, after a year of doing portraits and the other work this project has challenged me to do, I love all of it.”

To see more of Angel’s work, visit her website.

Portraits of Sam Angel by Amy Miller.