Q&A: Preston Gannaway — Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

18.10.18

Have you recently been living by any life philosophy? Sleep as much as possible. What will baffle future generations about our day and age? Our president and how mom jeans became cool for a second time. Are you aware of any conspiracies? Yes, the patriarchy. What is it that interests you about photography? Finding and creating art out of the everyday keeps life intriguing and meaningful. What is the worst thing about city life? The worst? Economic disparity. But I have many complaints which is why I’m mostly hiding out in a cabin in the woods these days. What part of the planet would you like to explore? The ocean if I didn’t need special equipment or certification. What do you think is the most plausible of the supernatural? Reincarnation and synchronicity. Pick a field of science to be an expert within. Neuroscience. Choose a job you would be willing to do for free on the side. Back up mandolin player. Describe the most important photo you’ve seen. I’m not a total Frankophile like many of my colleagues but when my high school photo teacher showed us Robert Frank’s New Orleans street car photo that was my holy-shit-power-of-what-photography-can-communicate moment. How often do you take other people’s advice? From my wife? Almost always. From others? Maybe more often than I should. When it comes without solicitation I find it usually isn’t worth taking. Describe a personal hell. Gridlock traffic (while being hungry and needing to go to the bathroom) due to a construction site where no one is working. Which living person do you most admire? People whose names we don’t know but are often hospice nurses or high school teachers. On what occasion do you lie? White lies to spare someone’s feelings or when I’m overbooked. What was the last crime you witnessed? Listening to the political news roundup this morning. What is the best way to educate yourself? Listen to other people. Do things. What is the next book you want to read? At the moment, the Worst-Case Scenario Handbook. Ultimate camera? One I don’t have to think about or answer questions about. Most used camera? Whatever Canon is my current workhorse. How would you explain the internet to someone from the 1950’s? A never ending vortex of good, evil, history and change parading as “information.” Are you satisfied with your level of physical strength? Never. But it’s not like I’m doing much about it. Describe a cheap thrill. Vintage video games at an arcade. Playing tag with my cat. Pick a historic moment from the last hundred years to bring a camera to. Despite some photojournalism background, I’m not particularly good at historic moments. But documenting the aftermath of MLK’s assassination or the Civil War would be incredible. Are impulses more important than consequences? No. Which talent would you most like to have? A better singing voice and after that, the ability to run long distances gracefully. What is your plan for the next 24 hours? Grind at the to-do list on my laptop and get ready to leave town. Hopefully make some pasta for dinner with two tiny Meyer lemons from my lemon tree. Get a good night’s sleep.

Seven and a half miles of beach stretch along the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay in the Ocean View neighborhood of Norfolk, Virginia. There are few, if any, spots in Ocean View where one can actually see the Atlantic. It’s a place of inherent contradictions. Vulnerable to weather’s every whim, the connection to the natural world — even if not embraced — can’t be denied. Once a rowdy playground for sailors, the picturesque seascape was rampant with drugs and prostitution. Over the decades, it’s been a siren call for transients and misfits.

But low rent in Ocean View also provides a way out of the projects for working-class families. For them, the beach is free. And it’s always there. Ocean View is an area filled with pride, yet perpetually changing. Old cottages are being bulldozed to build million dollar homes. “We’re gonna reclaim some of this property, and make it what it should be,” said a woman who moved to the neighborhood’s affluent subdivision a few years ago. Competing desires are at the heart of this community.

Gentrification is far from egalitarian. Though lower crime is an obvious upside, other effects of the changing demographics are far murkier. They are, as the saying goes, somewhere between the devil and the deep blue sea.

When I first moved to Ocean View in 2009, I found the beauty and complexity overwhelming and intoxicating. I felt compelled to photograph it. Having grown up in a homogenized part of the Old South, I’ve long been drawn to — and felt liberated by — difference.

I have never seen a place as eclectic as Ocean View. I find its imperfections attractive and, perhaps more importantly, truthful. As a hairdresser here once put it to me, “A place so diverse must be forgiving.”

Preston Gannaway (b. 1977) is a Pulitzer Prize-winning documentary photographer and artist. For nearly 20 years, she has focused on intimate stories about American families and marginalized communities while addressing themes such as gender identity, class and our relationship to the landscape. Born and raised in North Carolina, she now lives in Oakland, California.

Gannaway is best known for her long-term projects like Remember Me, which chronicles a family coping with a parent’s terminal illness and was awarded the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for feature photography. Her work has also been honored by Pictures of the Year International, Critical Mass and American Photography. She’s been supported by grants from the Getty Images and Chris Hondros Fund Award, The Documentary Project Fund, National Press Photographers Association and the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. In 2018 she was invited to be a Light Work Artist in Residence.

Her photographs have been shown in solo and group exhibitions in venues around the world including the Griffin Museum of Photography, Ogden Museum of Southern Art, Museum of Contemporary Art Georgia and San Francisco International Airport Museum.

Editorial clients include New York Times Magazine, California Sunday Magazine, Mother Jones, ESPN, and WIRED among others. Her first monograph, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, about the changing character of a seaside neighborhood along the Chesapeake Bay, was released in 2014.

Gannaway’s work is held in both private and public collections, with recent acquisitions including Stanford University, Duke University and the Chrysler Museum of Art. She is a regular lecturer, often serving as guest faculty in educational workshops. In the spring of 2019, she will be a visiting professor at the University of Montana.

To see more of Preston Gannaway’s work please visit — Website / Instagram.