preston gannaway – between the devil and the deep blue sea

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Preston Gannaway

Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

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“Wildness is a necessity.” — John Muir

Seven and a half miles of beach stretch along the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay in Norfolk, Virginia. There are few, if any, spots in the Ocean View neighborhood 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. There is beauty in the dirtiest corners.

Once a rowdy playground for sailors, the area was rampant with drugs and prostitution. Residents still boast of its edginess. It’s a siren call for transients and misfits. But also a way out from the projects for working class families. For them, the beach is free. And it’s always there.

It’s an area filled with pride, yet always teetering on the edge of change. In the early stages of gentrification, everyone’s got a side. Old cottages are being bulldozed to build million dollar homes.

I moved here two years ago and started documenting. I’ve found the beauty and complexity of the community overwhelming and intoxicating. The devil is elusive and we all have our own demons to fight. My hairdresser once said to me, “A place so diverse must be forgiving.”


Preston Gannaway (b. 1977) has worked as a documentary photojournalist for the past 10 years. Trained as a fine art photographer, Gannaway believes the daily newspaper is an inclusive medium that brings visual storytelling to a diverse audience. She currently works for The Virginian-Pilot newspaper in Norfolk, Virginia. In 2008, Gannaway’s photo story on the St. Pierre family, Remember Me, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for feature photography. A native of North Carolina, she began her career at the Coalfield Progress in rural southwest Virginia after earning a Bachelor of Arts at Virginia Intermont College.

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Preston Gannaway

37 Responses to “preston gannaway – between the devil and the deep blue sea”

  • I had a hunch that Preston’s work would show up here sooner or later. I have been a big fan of hers since she won the Pulitzer when she was at the Concord Monitor.
    Though I have seen many of these on her site I truly enjoy the layout here on burn.

  • Jamie Maxtone-Graham

    I very much enjoy the scope and scale of this essay – the details and the vistas. It plays something like a film in this way; well edited, beautifully composed and with a good eye for moments encountered. Nice.

  • Whenever I think everyday-life essays are almost impossible to make interesting, I’ll see something like this to show me it can be done. But it takes a terrific eye for the unusual within what can seem “ordinary” to make it happen. And then there’s the art inherent in just plain making excellent photos. Boy, does Preston ever have that artist’s touch! Her richly saturated color, often quirky POV, surprising compositions and obvious interest in all kinds of people give this essay the feeling of an improvisational jazz piece that is different every time she plays it. But, as with jazz, there is a basic theme that grounds and orients it.

    I will return to this essay again and again…and when I do I trust I will always find something new to see and feel. Brava, Preston! I want the book!

  • This is great!

    Everyday is interesting, wherever you are.. but it takes a great eye and time to dig deep, roam all over and get those little nuggets in front of us.. very well done here.. and yes, I want the book too!

  • Masterful essay, superb color palette, personal angle(s), something to learn from, for sure.

    #16: gee, the guys from the gang squad seem to belong to the DAH look-alike society! :-)

  • The quotidian, the subtle rhythm of everyday which blinds us and which we sometimes forget is full of life. Good and bad but life in general and I just love this essay. Full of quiet moments which Preston manages to pull above into the realm of magic. I chose my favourite image straight away when I saw Nya Tolbert in the vegetable garden.

  • Is there a job open here? Looks like a newspaper photographers portfolio to me. Competent, of course, but don’t see anything that knocks me out.

  • David…
    Jim Powers mentioned Burn reminded him off CNN, well if Burn is like CNN then you need someone following the riots in Libya. Perhaps there is a job for Jim Powers…


    i just gotta love you man…smiling…and as i said long ago, i think you have been married for 35 years or so, and i want to meet your wife…SHE must be one helluva strong woman!!

    now Jim, here is a newspaper photographer who actually can SEE ….this is all about just SEEING…

    i look at newspaper photographers from all over the country all the time and few have the subtle wit and visual ability of Preston..yes for sure it is a subtlety but that is what is so great about it…looks like the norm until you look closely….when i chose her work, i thought she was a i was pleasantly surprised the find out otherwise and working very near where i grew up…

    by the way, coming to Texas (Houston) again soon..missed you the last time, maybe catch you this time…

    cheers, david

  • I like this one for its ambitious and sophisticated storytelling as well as the well-executed photos. It’s great to see a photographer successfully convey a big, complex story. I watched this many times before reading the subtitles and the artist statement and got it just fine. As is not unusual (though not in every case), I feel the subtitles subtract from the quality of the presentation. Reasonable people, however, may disagree.

    I particularly liked how the story was sequenced, though I see that has changed. Originally, we were brought into the story slowly. My first reaction was, Oh no, another beach story. Nice compositions but who cares? Then as it grew in complexity I recognized the photographer’s ambition and came to greatly appreciate how the piece was conceived and executed. And the photos themselves grew on me as well. Perhaps because they are so conventionally processed, like Kodak or Fuji’s commercial films versus a more interpretive media such as Kodachrome or Velvia, it took me a few views to grasp their refined compositional qualities. That, and a few of them are just so conventional — the frolicking in the surf, the moonrise, the country club folk, the little girl running from the wave, led me to initially discount the work. But again, repeated viewings brought out the subtleties, both for sequential storytelling and image-centric.

    Of course I don’t know the author’s intent or how much influence editors may have on the sequencing, so I’m not entirely sure where the credit for the sequencing lies. Either way, I’d suggest putting it back the way it was. I might agree that the new first image is the strongest, but I found it much more powerful when it came later in the story. I think here at burn we should be able to trust the audience to consider the piece as a whole rather than feel it necessary to grab attention with a spectacular opening.

    Anyway, excellent work. Thanks.

  • MW…ok…the change i made will go back to the original…good points

  • love #20.
    saw it featured on ross taylor’s “image deconstructed” blog a few days ago:

  • Katia’s link is a terrific bonus to this fine essay, follow it, above.


    yes, that was the shot i moved to the lead picture and Michael suggested it go back into the mix…i am still not so sure…in any case, great picture…i moved it into the lead because i thought not only great picture but spoke to the title so well…but now the sequence is per Preston suggestion….so we are locked

  • This is a beautiful series. I am more drawn to the dark, strange images — not sure if the more conventional ones (dog, parade) are necessary as a counterpoint. Go all in for the strangeness.

  • Fantastic. I love the horizontality (or horizontaliness) of the images – if that makes any sense. Many (most even) images on BURN are horizontal, but somehow hers make the viewer really feel a sense of being horizontal, which of course speaks to the proximity to the sea, whether the image references the sea or not. And the varied subject matter all seems to fit together. Tough to pull off. Bravo!


  • This is exactly what I would expect to see from Preston – amazing work. Been a fan for a long time.

    Jim’s comment is also exactly what I would expect coming from him – (rest of my comment withheld by me)

    DAVID – sorry I missed you a while back. Email me if you are coming back through.

  • Thanks for all the kind words. I really appreciate all the interesting and varied perspectives. Just so happy to see people are enjoying the work – that means a lot.

  • This is one that I looked at before reading the explanation and as I went along, I thought I was looking at the work of a male photographer. I don’t know why. Anyway, excellent material that tells a broad story about a varied community.

  • Yes! Congratulations Preston. This is wonderful.

    You are very bold and inventive in your framing and composition. I adore the way #3 and #4, work together, both images cut in halve by walls, first on the left, then on the right. Brilliant. The jet and the sailboat, the clams, the birds over the motel, many awesome images.

    As Patricia and David point out, seeing what is extra-ordinary right in front of your nose. Yes subtle wit and visual awareness, showing us the extraordinary in everyday.


  • “To be alive: not just the carcass
    But the spark.
    That’s crudely put, but…

    If we’re not supposed to dance,
    Why all this music?”
    –Gregory Orr

    I have lived by the sea, spent a good part of my childhood, adolescence and adult hood barring and boxing out a life reckoned and defined by the sea. As a child, teen and young adult, I felt a physical loss, an extraction, whenever I was land-swept, viscerally hungering for both the body of the light, the sweep of the wind and the carriage of scent and depth and hum that one finds only aside the sea, bathed in scattered scards of light or towel’d by the drapery of sand and storm. It did not matter. Anyone that has spent more than a few days along the ocean, knows and understand that the life that accompanies ocean-peaking, both hard and evidential, comes upon you full-stop. You are forever thumb-printed by both the romanticism of staring at the horizon-dream and righteously fucked by thinking of that darkened abyss just pass the throw of a stone, or the dropping of a kite. It is hard not to be an optimist growing up near the ocean, but an optimism that comes without illusion but the sea, the sand, the wind, the storm reminds one continually of our small, reverent selves. One dreams and one hurts against the sea, no way of getting around that. A reckoning and a reconciliation…..

    And both of those qualities, the reckoning and the reconciliation, is what I love so much about this essay. Of course, Preston is a strong, lyrical photographer with an eye for the power of narrative within the quotidian. An absurdists’ sense of place, but one that bevels irony for grace, cynicism and ennui for loving celebration. If viewers are not familiar with her Pulitzer story “Remember Me”, I suggest they immediately take a look at spend some time with that powerful and humane story. Ironically, ‘Remember Me’ is a story of affirmation, a confirmation of the power of human’s enduring and surviving and loving amid the squalor of grief. I see the same here.

    I love that the story opens and closes with two children: what kind of story about the ocean, about a sea community, even one as conflicted and hard-won as Norfolk, without opening and closing upon the hopes and dreams of 2 children. I love that Preston moves forward through what appear to be ‘obvious’ expectations of a story about a sea/vacation community (though Norfolk is not really a ‘vacation’ community, per se, though that seems to be changing), light, laughter, retiree’s, colorful palette and then we’re harnessed up, abruptly (i love the ‘shock’ of pic 14)….the darkness anticipated by the “noreaster’ pic and the snow/profile shot, and yet, 14 stops us, or rather stopped me cold….and as I proceeded and moved toward a much more complex story, one that better shows not only the Norfolk I am familiar with (having visited it a bunch of times, and having spent 10 days there one summer in ’84), the economic division, the crime, the beach giving way to a more gentrified city….that the optimism of the beach belies an underbelly of difficulty and trouble that better represents the division, economic, sociologic, of the nation…..the devil is us….

    formally, i too love the color and the light…I love all the visual motifs (using color and compositional themes that pop up, using repetition of objects and juxtaposing emotions..)….all which lead to a more complex view of the beach part of Norfolk….as with the ‘other’ Preston ;), i prefer the odder, stranger pictures…the moments of unrest and oddity….but, this is still a well photographed, well-told story of a community that is richer and more complex than just coconut oil, steamed blue crabs and wavering light…..

    and that child, reaching-racing-toward the future….

    the hope of us all…

    congratulations for a terrific essay…


  • fresh…
    strange image of 11 year old in sand building a penis, no? that image alone could be the beginning of another story… **

  • Well, so much for me suggesting that I do something about our happy little burg; all I have is quotidian and Preston does quotidian way better than I ever could. Ah well, such is life, I guess.

  • Preston, i really like how you see, or how you show us how you see. from the pleasing colors, to the well written captions, to the order and flow of the essay …. totally impressed! … i thoroughly enjoyed this essay and can tell you are extremely dedicated + aware

    went to your site to check out more of your work: WOW…. i had a hard time seeing “Remember Me”. not that there was anything wrong with your site or my monitor…just that, you know, tears have a way of obscuring one’s vision.

  • Wendy…

    I would say (just my opinion)… no, not strange at all. 11 years old? That’s about the time we start learning about the other gender’s “naughty bits.” And 11 is also a rather immature age. Drawing, sculpting, talking/giggling about these things is very much not strange.

    Though, yes, probably would be a story its own.


    Great work. Very much enjoyed this.

  • I also think the previous title picture was a much better introduction (on top of being a great and unforgettable image) to the essay. This one is far from being one of the best, the light seems a bit shot here.

  • HERVE…

    my instincts were to have either the couple or the beer drinkers as the lead…but Preston wants this edit and sequence…and i always defer to the photographer in such a strong essay as is this…..i think she and Mike make the same case..their feeling is that why does the strongest shot always have to be at the beginning? something to think about

  • ALL

    there is something you might want to think about with Preston…she does this work “on demand” every day at her newspaper…i am sure some days are better than others, but producing great work at 3pm at the corner of Granby and 32nd is no small feat and one of the primary reasons why some photographers are hired and others are not…everybody who is a serious photographer has most likely a great picture or two in their portfolio….

    it is the rare photographer who can shoot great all the time , every time…i do not know Preston, but i do know her work here and from her site and the job she is hired to do…the “on demand” ability is something we rarely discuss here but is probably the one single thing that separates the pros from the non pros….playing the role of editor here, i can imagine that if i needed a good pictures taken of just about anything RIGHT NOW, then Preston would most likely be a good choice for the job….AND her work also falls into the category of personal vision…she gets paid for her personal vision…

    editors are rarely impressed by those who have great pictures of inherently dramatic material..they tend to think “well anybody can take a great shot in Rajasthan”…most editors want a photographer who can make anything/the everyday look interesting…

    for those of you contemplating a career in photography, which some of you do, then study Preston and others like her….this is how you get the job….nothing i can tell you illustrates this more than this essay…

    cheers, david

  • ALL: :)

    on the notion of the sequence and first image…

    I didn’t see, I guess, the original sequence, as the version i saw yesterday opens with this boy (with this extraordinary bend in his lithe body) upon the rocks and ends with the young girl racing toward the shore along with the wind…for me, it is in fact, a perfect entrance/exit combo…to begin with it creates narrative symmetry (and for me, as i wrote, the notion of children and their dreams/hopes/explorations should be one of the hearts of a story of a community near the sea), …moreover, the opening shot has a lot of visual space and emptiness…an ambiguous image that does NOT give the story away, but rather makes the reader interested…i like and prefer ambiguous, mysterious openings (have always just them for my own work), as a way to stand back from the drama of the narrative…a good opening pic doesnot have to be equal to that ‘brilliant opening sentence’ in a story/poem, but rather one that opens and allows the viewer to think/reflect/question…

    anyway, for me, this opener makes perfect sense… the opening of a film….

  • BOB…

    i think you are right..or rather Preston and Mike and you are right…i often have the tendency to think strong lead shot…but this is not necessary in many cases…i actually went quiet for my own DSoul as well…sometime this small computer screen makes me want to just give the essay some zip somehow…but i will try to restrain myself!!

    cheers, david

  • I might even suggest that this essay approaches the sublime.

  • Some of the images in this series are marvellous, seriously fantastic work. I’m gonna come back tomorrow in the AM and right something more on it – stunning.

    Cheers for the link to The Image, Deconstructed. Interesting site and I just got sidetracked checking out. Have bookmarked it. Nice one, hon.

  • why does the strongest shot always have to be at the beginning? something to think about

    Well, as usual, there should not be any rules to abide to forever. And we’d find that one viewer’s stronget shot is not another’s, as well.

    It must be strong shot, or one that titillates our curiosity.

    By the way, if it was a book, arguably with 2 or 3 times more pictures, would that shot still be Preston’s as a cover?

    Basically for me, this shot is not representative of the essay text, that seems to speak of a place which Preston eloquently shows and speaks of as having its own personality and energy. Not contesting that it does belong to the essay all the same, but standing alone (as a “cover”), it could have been taken anywhere with seas and boulders as props to a fine composition.

  • Myself, I would think that the “strongest” belongs somewhere in a book, rather that on the cover, a bit like the chorus melody of a song is often the apex and what clinches its status as an unforgettable hit, inside the song (yes, no rules there too).

    Yet, no verses, no chorus, and how many times have I heard when I was doing music that the first bars of a song must catch and hold the listener.

  • Intelligent, own vision, when I see all these works, especially these one, I’m saying that BURN is a real support for “young” photographer, BURN is really hot!
    26 is my favorite, but the work is very interesting.
    Good luck Preston,


  • So many intriguing images here. I love the opening image, but also the chairs in the wrecked beach home. The discussion over on TID regarding how the couple flirting image came about was fascinating and insightful to read. This is a great project, and I hope to see it grow over more time. Great as it is but, from what I’ve read, there is more to come. Looking forward to seeing that! Well done. :-)

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