DISCOURSE: February - Tessa Ratner
Welcome to DISCOURSE, my monthly blog series in which I shoot and interview a different individual each month and picking their brain on creativity, innovation, passion, and heart.
If I could describe Tessa Ratner in one word, I would choose "analog". She really puts a lot of effort and care into bringing the art that she engages in back to the basics. I've known Tessa for about a year and a half. I first knew about her when I saw @tessarenae show up in my Instagram notifications, and then one day we met pretty randomly, and it turned out that we go to the same church. Ever since then, Tessa and I have hung out together quite a bit, and I've gotten to know her pretty well. She currently works as a flight attendant for Virgin America. This month, I had the opportunity to meet up with her at a local Sunset record store, and then chat with her at her apartment.
How long have you been a flight attendant? How many airports have you been to?
During the two years that I’ve been a flight attendant, I’ve been to probably around 50 or so airports, mostly in the United States.
What are you passionate about? How have you been able to integrate that into your job?
I’m really passionate about service, so luckily for me, as a flight attendant, I’m able to incorporate that into my job because I’m serving people on the plane. I’m also really passionate about creating when I can, and I’ve learned how to do that on the road with my job. Often, I’ll have my cameras in stow when I go on trips for work, and I’ve even started packing my painting supplies, so that if I have time, I can just bust them out and create a makeshift studio wherever I’m at, such as in my hotel room.
Let’s talk some more about painting. How do you get inspiration and decide what to draw and paint?
Most of my inspiration comes from personal experiences as well as dreams that I have. I’ll often journal about dreams that I’ve had and incorporate that into my painting, so I’d almost say that the paintings are like a diary in a way because they’re often very representative of things I’ve gone through recently. Painting is a release for me in that way.
What about photography? What are your favorite subjects to shoot and what do you look for when you’re out shooting?
I love shooting portraiture. It’s my favorite because I love shooting people and I love showcasing authentic life. I also really love capturing creation in general, or even just things I encounter when I’m walking around. But I like shooting people the best.
Are they mostly people you know, or do you photograph strangers as well?
I used to do do portraiture of people I didn’t know as paid work, but now I mostly shoot my friends or even strangers that aren’t even aware that I’m taking their photo (laughs) but for the most part I take pictures of my friends or people I know.
And you also like collecting records? When did that start, how has that developed over the years and what do you like about it?
I started collecting records after I went through a really awful breakup back in 2012. My sister had bought me a record player that was supposed to be a wedding gift for me and my ex-fiance, and when we broke off the wedding, she still gave me the record player as a birthday gift. As I was going through that breakup, I started collecting records and really caring about the music I listened to, and I really loved the physical format of the record and quality of sound that it produced. So I got into collecting them and supporting the artists in that way. I don’t have a huge collection, but what I do have is very special to me, so I really enjoy it.
You were already into music before you got your first record player, correct? How do you see the medium of vinyl as being different from things like iTunes, Spotify, or even CDs?
I was, yes. What makes a record different for me is the physical aspect of it. You have to be physically involved in the process of the entire album playing: you have to turn the record, and sometimes if it’s a double album you have to swap the record out, depending on your table, you might have to lower the needle down onto the record... It’s a very physical way of listening to your music, and you’re also forced to listen to the whole thing. You can skip around if you wanted to, but it’s not as easy as on iTunes or on a cd. You’re really engrossed in the whole experience of an album, so when I listen to a record, I listen to it from start to finish, and I get to hear the entire experience of what that artist intended when they created that record as a whole.
It really started surprising me when I started listening to music like that because... you start to understand more of the bigger picture of the entire album instead of singles that may pop out to you from the radio or that you download off of iTunes. You’re listening to what the artist intended you to.
Would you ever buy a record that you had never heard before but wanted to listen to the whole thing, as opposed to something that you have heard before and know you like?
I have done that a couple of times, and sometimes I’ve been let down (laughs) so that’s kind of a bummer. If it’s a new artist that I haven’t experienced before, I’ll listen to the digital album first, but I’ll listen to it as a whole, rather than piecing it together with songs. On the other hand, if it’s an artist that I know I enjoy, I will preorder the record before it comes out, and then it gets mailed to me on the day that it’s released, and I can listen to it for the first time on vinyl.
Yeah that’s really cool, because as you said, you do have to show more of a dedication, almost a sacrifice, because you can’t be lazy by choosing which songs you want to listen to. Similarly with film, instead of having these digital files, you have these physical versions, which shows more investment and care.
Yeah, it really comes down to being intentional. When I shoot photos on film, I really have to think out what I’m shooting beforehand because I can’t just take 10 shots without thinking about it. I have to really put everything I want in a shot in one frame and make it happen and if it doesn't, I’m actually losing out on an investment, because I invest money into each shot I take. It’s the same with purchasing an album: you’re being intentional about caring about the music you listen to and supporting the artists you want to support. Being intentional is something that I’ve come to value, and I dedicate myself to being... this is going to sound cheesy, but authentic, in both photography and music. I like when things are real, and not so airbrushed.
You have shot digital photography before, correct? What made you decide that you prefer film, or do you still shoot digital too?
I don’t personally own a digital camera right now. I only have my phone, which is my digital outlet when it comes to photography at this point. So when I do intentionally photograph things, it is on film. I used to have digital equipment, but I sold it all. And the reason I did that was that I was shooting weddings, I was shooting portraits, I was shooting for the school I used to work for, and I just felt myself getting burnt out. I wasn’t feeling as creative, or again, as intentional as I wanted to be when it came to photographing the things I loved, so I decided to go back to just shooting film because it was how I found my love for photography in the first place. That’s why I went in that direction.
I have a medium format Hasselblad now. I could have chosen to buy another digital camera, but to me the Hasselblad made more sense at the time, and I’m glad I purchased it, because with it, I produced some of my favorite photographs I’ve ever taken, and it’s been a match made in heaven.
Would you ever go back? Maybe not necessarily doing the same things that burnt you out, but just buying another digital camera?
I think I could go back to digital again, and I most likely will buy a digital camera this year. But for me, it’s important to keep the mindset of film when you shoot digital too, because otherwise you’re just mindlessly taking photographs that you just don’t really care as much about. I just don’t want to get to that point again.
Looking back at at your past, what and who has shaped you and gotten you to this point?
I had a mentor in college; her name is Rosetta, and she’s still in my life, but she lives in Southern California now. She really called me out to being the woman I am today, and there’s something about our relationship and the time we shared together that was so special. She was probably one of the most encouraging forces in my life during one of the most difficult times in my life. She is just an incredible person, and I’m really thankful for her. And in photography, I took an intro to black and white film class at a community college, and my teacher Harvey Spector was super encouraging and helped me gain confidence and creative power, which have stayed with me and been a great foundation for my film photography. Even though it was just one semester, that class really formed my creative outlet for photography and my appreciation for film.
As far as experiences go, I had purchased my first DSLR camera shortly before going on a trip to Tanzania during college, and I wasn’t even shooting in RAW. That was when I really developed an enjoyment of taking portraits, and some of my favorite photos I’ve ever taken were on that trip. I had no idea what I was doing; I set the camera on auto for the entire time. There are so many things that I wish I had done differently when I was there, but capturing those portraits was so special, and it really grew my love for photography and for capturing moments. That trip was really life-changing, and not just in photography; I learned what it truly means to have joy and how to live without want, because the people I encountered there taught me more than I taught them, for sure.
Another life-changing experience is the same breakup that drove me to collecting vinyl. It was an awful breakup, I mean, we almost got married. But it really taught me to look to God and into myself to find the strength and the creativity to express my heart and my creative ability to the world. It’s crazy, but if that hadn’t happened, I don't think I would be creating the same things that I'm creating now. I definitely don't think I’d have the same relationship with God either. That experience taught me a lot about resilience and grace and being who I am. Even though it was a traumatizing experience, I’m really thankful for that time because it brought me to where I am today.
It’s crazy how things like that can impact us in a positive way, especially because we can’t see that when it happens of course, and it seems like the worst thing ever, but ultimately, if we’re the kind of people that won’t give up, then it will have a good outcome.
Switching gears a bit, what people or publications do you draw inspiration from?
There’s this photographer named Maryanne Gobble that I have yet to meet, but she and her work are such an inspiration to me, and she’s also a Christian. I’ve interacted with her a lot over social media, and she’s very encouraging. It’s so nice to see someone who’s so talented being willing to interact with people like me. (laughs)
I really enjoy Cereal Magazine; their travel photos are really beautiful. There are a ton of musicians that I follow: anything that Justin Vernon (lead singer of Bon Iver) puts out is always good, and right now I'm super into Nils Frahm, who’s a fantastic modern pianist. There are also a lot of Instagrammers whose accounts I really like. I’ve also used Instagram to follow photographers and draw inspiration from them.
That’s how we met!
Yeah! Instagram is really cool. It can be a great community for photographers because you can encourage each other and collaborate. It’s a really great outlet.
Are you creatively satisfied at the moment?
No, I’m never satisfied (laughs) because I hold myself to really high standards, to the point that I don’t even like calling myself an artist. I just don’t have enough confidence in myself, and I think that’s the reason that I’m never satisfied. There’s always more, and I have this insatiable need to create. In the words of Rainer Maria Rilke (author of Letters to a Young Poet): “Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depth of your heart; confess to yourself you would have to die if you were forbidden to write.” To me, that desire is insatiable, as in I’ll never be satisfied. And that’s ok.
What are some challenges that you’re facing right now?
I overthink a lot when it comes to bigger things that I want to do, and I psyche myself out. I almost avoid creating for periods of time, not because I'm not feeling creative, but because I don’t think I’m good enough to. I just have to get over the roadblock, which is my biggest challenge.
Are there any ongoing projects that you’re working on right now?
Right now, my forever ongoing project is painting people with icebergs and birds on their heads. It’s this big series and I have a million ideas in mind for it, but it’s slowly coming to fruition and I’ll get there eventually. As far as photography goes, I have some ideas that I'm working on such as travel blogging, and some more personal artistic things that I’m working on. I started another Instagram gallery that is more geared towards the content I really want to create. I'm trying to challenge myself to post daily, so these will mostly be phone shots. So there’s some exciting content coming this year. You can check that out at @intrepidcreature. You can also see just my personal and more day to day stuff at @tessarenae.
What does the future hold for you?
Hopefully more of what I’m doing now. I always get asked “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” and the answer is that I'm not really sure, and i think that’s ok, because right now I know that I’m happy with my job and being in San Francisco. But realistically, when I make these plans for myself, it never really works out. So it’s not that I don’t have ambitions or goals or that I don’t want to go certain places; I just find that it’s best for me to not set big plans for myself. But right now I’m very pleased with my job as a flight attendant and how it’s given me the ability to pursue my creative outlets as well.
What is your definition of a good life?
To me, a good life is full of the people that you I the most, and living what God has intended me to. I’m not looking to be a millionaire or be famous. I just really want to give it everything I can, and know that I poured out everything that I have the ability to. There’s always more grace, and there’s always the ability to start fresh. You don’t have to be stuck in the trenches. If you look hard enough, there's always people willing to pull you out and have your back and love you. It’s really important to remember that there’s always grace upon grace, and we are never victims of anything except grace itself. When you’re going through trials, that can be difficult to see, but there’s always light at the end of the tunnel, and you just have to power through what you’re going through to get there.
You can find more of Tessa's work at @tessarenae and @intrepidcreature. Special thanks to Western Relics for graciously letting us shoot in their space.
Gear used in this shoot:
-Sigma 35mm f/1.4 Art