During the five years Preston Gannaway spent as a staff newspaper photographer for the Virginian-Pilot, she worked on a personal project about Ocean View, a working class beach neighborhood at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. It had attracted transients and misfits for decades, and was beginning to gentrify by the time Gannaway first visited in 2009. Since leaving Virginia in 2013 to pursue a freelance career in California, she has self-published Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, a book about Ocean View that she funded with a Kickstarter campaign that raised $21,561.
PDN: What captured your imagination about Ocean View, and why did you feel compelled to photograph it?
Preston Gannaway: What got me initially was how beautiful it was. I had never lived on the water before. It was also the diversity of the community. So often these coastal communities are more affluent, and [Ocean View] was a really great mix of everyday people. It also had a quirky twist to it that I found really appealing.
PDN: Quirky twist in what way?
PG: The first time I went to the neighborhood, I pulled off the highway, and there was a dive bar with a camel out in front of it. It just had a whimsical feel to it, the kind of place where anything goes [with] a live-and-let-live attitude. It’s always been this sort of rough and tumble place.
PDN: Did you first go there on an assignment for the Virginian-Pilot?
PG: No, I was apartment hunting. I checked out a little house to rent, and ended up moving there and that’s when it started.
PDN: What were you trying to convey about Ocean View?
PG: Initially, I wanted just to explore the beach and the water. But then I got more and more interested in the residents and the history of the place, and less in the superficial aspects—and also the connections that residents have with the water and the beach. I think this work is about the desire to live in a coastal community, and the relationship that people have to the natural world.
PDN: What are some of the challenges of trying to capture the essence of a place, and of this place in particular?
PG: There’s always some challenge with making the mundane look interesting. On the surface, if you take the beach out especially, it feels like a very common American neighborhood. It’s somewhat suburban. That’s always been a challenge I’ve liked in photography: looking at everyday things, and finding what makes them special or unusual or surprising.
PDN: Did you approach it like street photography, or did you hang out with particular people and get to know them?
PG: It was a little bit of both. A lot of what I did was just drive around, like old-school feature hunting for a newspaper. I had spent years doing that when I was at the Concord Monitor and there’s part of that that I just really love still—just the serendipity of what you can find. So there was a lot of that. I had a photo column for a while, so that was more research-based, and I would look for events in the area. And then I did get more into the history. Once I had a better understanding of [that], I would try to fill in the visual gaps of what I felt I hadn’t represented. That would involve more getting in touch with people who represented a certain demographic, and spending more time with them.
PDN: Can you give me example of images that arose that way?
PG: There’s a picture of a woman named Jennifer and her daughter [Portia]. Jennifer was one of the people I worked with the last year I was shooting who I felt embodied what the project was about, and what I wanted to show. She had been addicted to crack in the ’90s, and was a prostitute out in Ocean View for a long time, so she represented a lot of that seedy underbelly of the neighborhood. But she also grew up there, and had this fierce loyalty to the neighborhood. When she got cleaned up and got her life together, had kids, got married, she was priced out of the neighborhood. So looking at a lot of the effects of that—of gentrification—you can say what happens when you come into a neighborhood and suppress crime, you also push out people who have a history and a deep connection with that place.
PDN: What are some of the feature-type images that you’re proudest of?
PG: One in particular is a baptism photo. That was a found situation. I had spent four years working on this project, scouring community event boards, talking to people. Water baptisms are still somewhat common in the south, but I had never heard of any going on in Ocean View, and that picture I shot the last weekend I was there shooting. I got up on Sunday morning and went down to the beach to see what was going on, and when I pulled into the public parking lot, I saw those people dressed in white getting out of their cars, and realized what was going to happen. I talked to them, and they were really great, and said, ‘Yeah, fell free to shoot.’ So I jumped in the water with them. It’s one of those pictures you wouldn’t expect just to stumble upon.
PDN: Another photograph is of the family in the screen tent on the beach. How did you get that photograph?
PG: For all these images, I did form some sort of relationship with the [subjects]. Now that could be five minutes or a number of months, or more than a year. I would go out a lot when the light was nice, at the end of the day. In summertime, on the beach, you could always find people out there in the more public section of the beach. I was looking for something else, and couldn’t get what I was looking for, but I saw [the family], and asked if I could hang out and take a few pictures. They were open to it. I sat there for maybe 10 or 15 minutes and photographed them.
PDN: What were some of the gaps, and how did you identify them.
PG: It’s a subjective thing. But I needed some more transitional images, and I wanted to get some more intimate images, because so many of them were out on the beach in public spaces. I wanted more images of inside the [people’s] homes.
PDN: How did you negotiate that access?
PG: That’s the nice thing of having done this kind of work for 15 years, you get pretty quick at figuring out who’s going to be open to it and who’s not. It’s just [a matter of] making conversation, being genuine and relaxed. The more relaxed you are, the more open people are. You don’t give them a cause to worry.
PDN: Do you have advice for photographers pursuing projects like this, photographing a place to capture the essence of it?
PG: I would encourage people to work close to their home. I think it’s nice to have a personal project you can shoot whenever, and you don’t have to wait for someone to return a phone call, or something to be happening, you can just go and explore visually at any point.