Preston Gannaway

Preston Gannaway (b. 1977, Charlotte, North Carolina)

Preston Gannaway lives in Oakland, California, and worked early in her career as a daily news photographer, which she credits with teaching her the skills of documentary photography. Gannaway holds a BA in photography from Virginia Intermont College in Bristol. She was the recipient of a 2008 Pulitzer Prize for feature photography. Gannaway’s editorial clients include New York Times Magazine, Mother Jones, and the Washington Post. Her photographs are included in the collections of the Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Virginia; the Newseum, Washington, D.C; and The Do Good Fund, Columbus, Georgia.

Many of Gannaway’s photographs selected for Southbound come from her book Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea (2014), which documents Ocean View, a seaside community that stretches across seven and a half miles of beach along the Chesapeake Bay. Gannaway became fascinated with Ocean View because, in contrast to many Southern coastal areas, it is populated by a mix of diverse demographics including race and class. The area has a history of drugs, prostitution, and attracting sailors from Norfolk’s nearby naval base, but it also has been undergoing change brought about by real estate development and gentrification.

Untitled (Tent Family) (2013) depicts a day at the beach in Ocean View. A group of African American parents and young children lounge on blankets under a mosquito-netted tent. Gannaway’s photograph reads like a casual snapshot, catching the family in an unposed moment of ease. Three of the adults watch something going on in the distance while the fourth woman cradles her baby. The standing toddler is the only figure whose attention is directed at the viewer. In the background, a couple embraces against a lifeguard tower. Gannaway’s skills enable her to relay authentic, unselfconscious moments in the lives of her subjects. Additionally, her interest in representing a diverse perspective in her subjects can be seen in Teddy and Chris #1 (2013). The photograph captures a quiet moment between two young African American men in Chesapeake, Virginia. The man on the right closes his eyes while embracing his lover. His face is turned toward the camera, though both men seem oblivious to its presence. Gannaway’s photograph inspired poet Nikky Finney to write Magnolia Garden Homes, High Noon, Unit #144, Parking Lot H for the Southbound project. 

Other images of Ocean View highlight ways in which this working-class community enjoys the pleasures and bounties of nature within an industrial landscape. Twins (2013) shows two white teenage women sunning their backs while lying in shallow waves at the beach. A third teen climbs a large pile of rocks and dirt nearby. The young women’s heads are turned to the massive dredging ship just off the coast that takes up the majority of the horizon. Gannaway’s photograph illustrates that beaches today often are maintained by massive construction projects, here the creation of a jetty. Many photographers might diminish or hide the presence of the ship, as it disrupts the ideal of the beach as a place where one can relax and escape the pressures of modern life. Instead, Gannaway directs the viewer’s eye to it through the gaze of the two young women and by having the ship obstruct the view of the ocean, thus portraying the beach as a place where people find room for leisure even in the midst of transformation and powerful, industrial forces. Gannaway’s work offers unique stories about American families, especially those marginalized due to race, gender, or class.

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