Photo Journal: Preston Gannaway -- Leap of Faith

  • BETWEEN THE DEVIL AND THE DEEP BLUE SEA

By Jim Colton

As a photo editor, I have had the pleasure of being on the other end of the loupe for over 40 years. I have traveled the world through thousands of other eyes. I’ve been to places that I would never have had the opportunity to go to on my own. The lightbox, and now my monitor, has been my window to the universe.

There are several joys in being a photo editor. The obvious one of course, is finding that gem. I’ve often described my job as that of a treasure hunter….digging through the lightbox looking for jewels. But my greatest pleasure has always been watching the blossoming of a great photographer….and….if I was lucky, to have been a small part of that growth.

Color transparencies from raw takes have slid under my loupe from the likes of James Nachtwey, Christopher Morris, Peter Turnley, Anthony Suau and a litany of others…many of whom got their first magazine assignments for Newsweek where I was the photo editor for international news.

Preston GannawaySo where does emerging talent come from today? Where does the next generation of Nachtwey’s go to cut their teeth? I have just returned from the 26th Eddie Adams Workshop where 100 students are taking those first steps.  It was there, 10 years ago, that I first met Preston Gannaway. I was her team editor and Sports Illustrated staff photographer Bill Frakes was her team leader.

I asked Bill for his thoughts on Gannaway and he said, “Preston is the prototype for a successful contemporary storyteller -- Passionate, talented, and committed. She identifies the subject and explores it completely with a sensitive, yet critical eye.  And the bonus is that she is delightful!” 

Talented and delightful indeed! And in those ten years, at various newspapers, she has garnered more than her share of photography awards including a Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography in 2008 for her project "Remember Me," about Carolynne St. Pierre and her family's battle with a rare form of liver cancer.

Not one to rest on her laurels, Gannaway has just taken a leap of faith and left her position as a staff photographer for the Virginian-Pilot to go freelance on the west coast. While she was working and living in Virginia, Gannaway immersed herself in a project right outside her living room window.

The project (currently seeking funding on Kickstarter) called:  Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, is a visual essay exploring the working-class seaside community of Ocean View and the residents' relationship to the natural environment and the changing character of this American neighborhood.

Jim Colton: How did you wind up in the photo business? Who or what were some of your earliest influences?

Preston Gannaway: I was always into art growing up. Both my mom and my great grandmother were artists. Halfway through college I decided I wanted to make the leap from drawing and painting to photography.  I transferred to be able to study fine art photography and graduated from a small liberal arts school in rural southwest Virginia called Virginia Intermont College. Journalism, it’s funny to say now, seemed like a safe next step. After a rather unconventional sequence of jobs and internships, I ended up as a full-time staff photographer at the Concord Monitor in 2003.

In terms of early inspirations, the first real ah-ha moment I remember was in high school looking at Annie Leibowitz’s early documentary work and Byron Baldwin, my high school photo teacher’s beautiful black and white photographs of his family. That was when I realized how much could be communicated about life through documentary pictures. 

Fine art photographers have always been an inspiration to me, especially as I was starting out: Lee Friedlander, Stephen Shore, and Sally Mann. Also cinema: practically anything from the 1970s and more recently, documentary films. The “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” work was originally inspired by Joel Meyerowitz’s Cape Light. 

JC: You've worked at several newspapers during your career including the Concord Monitor and The Virginian-Pilot. Can you tell us a little about those experiences? Was there one paper that you enjoyed the most?

PG: The blessing of working for a newspaper is being forced to shoot every day. You’re practicing constantly; you can’t underestimate the effect that has on learning the vast set of skills needed to do this work. Plus, there’s no better way to learn a community than to work for the daily newspaper. 

I still really enjoy shooting the simple daily assignments that are the bread-and-butter of many newspapers: parades, sporting events, schools. I spent 12 years doing that and most of the time, it never got old. It may seem obvious, but I really enjoy making pictures. As freelancer, I definitely spend less of my time shooting. 

I’m grateful to have been able to have those opportunities and sad that it’s just not available to many photographers coming up now. Newspapers made me the photographer - and person - I am today. 

The Concord Monitor with Dan Habib at the helm was an exceptionally special place. That was the newspaper experience that shaped me the most.  Even when I interned there, I learned more in three months than I had during two years in my first job at a weekly. Sadly, it’s the exception now to work for a photo editor who’s a real leader and teacher. 

In fact, most of my newspaper career was spent at small newspapers so I was able to also study page design, writing, and copy editing. I loved designing my own photo pages. We had a lot of autonomy within the Concord Monitor photo department. We could have fun and take risks.  The reporting staff at the Monitor was exceptionally bright and motivated, so doing ambitious work didn’t feel like trying to swim upstream alone.

I wasn’t around for the heyday of journalism but I am lucky to have worked at some of the most reputable photo papers in the country. Newspapers have changed so dramatically even in the past ten years. It took me a long time to realize that my goals were often at odds with the company’s. It wasn’t easy to part ways, but it was time to move on. 

JC: You've recently taken a leap of faith and moved to the west coast and joined the ranks of other freelancers not affiliated with any newspaper or wire service/agency. What made you decide to make this move, especially during this very tenuous time in our business?

PG: I felt strongly about doing documentary work and I was spending more of my energy advocating for it than I was producing it. Ultimately, I decided the work is too important to sacrifice it for a paycheck.  

My partner Nicole Fruge and I both had newspaper jobs, but in two different cities. It’s challenging for two journalists. I was working for the Rocky Mountain News in 2009 when they put it up for sale, and after watching what happened, I decided it’s smarter to have one half of the couple remain self-employed anyway. This was a good time for us to financially make the leap. 

I love collaborating with other people and I want to find more ways to do that. I now have more freedom in my schedule to teach workshops, talk about the stories I’ve done, and to get my hands into some other things. 

I love newspapers and have the utmost respect for those who are fighting the good fight. I may go back someday, but right now this is the best way to do the work I’m passionate about and tell the stories I feel are important.

JC: You are an alumna of the Eddie Adams Workshop. What was that experience like for you and what did you take away from it that might still resonate with you today?

Eddie Adams was a very different experience for me because it was the first time I had ever been around a group of photojournalists. I was pretty overwhelmed by the large personalities and the competitive energy. I took real comfort when John White spoke. 

But I was so glad to have been able to experience that workshop. Bill Frakes taught me some key lessons in image making and I started to identify a few other photographers in the community who were like-minded and who have been a real support to me since. And that’s where I met you!

I am always recommending students and photographers in early stages of their careers attend workshops. I went to the Missouri Photo Workshop a few years after EAW and that was an amazing learning experience for me in terms of community photojournalism - it helped set a foundation which I still rely on today. The Mountain Workshops, though I haven’t attended as a student myself, are also fantastic. 

JC: In 2008, you won a Pulitzer Prize for feature photography for your story: "Remember Me," about Carolynne St. Pierre and her family's battle with a rare form of liver cancer. Can you tell us a little about that story including how long it took to complete the project? Have you stayed in touch with the family since and if so, how are they coping?

PG: Concord Monitor reporter Chelsea Conaboy and I spent almost 2 years following the St. Pierre family. During the course of that time, the paper published five stories and an 18 minute multimedia piece. We initially set out to do a story about how a young family copes with terminal illness but after the first piece ran, we saw the potential for a more intimate story. The family continued to open up and we built a lot of trust. The series ended up being about how a family copes with grief….and how families change.

It was an incredibly powerful experience for me. It was such a gift to be there with them through that process.  The Remember Me project also transformed me as a journalist. Before that project, I thought I had to be a ‘fly on the wall’ and keep a professionally emotional distance from the subjects I was photographing. During my time with the St. Pierres, I realized that that was holding me back and that opening up to people was crucial if you want them to open up to you. 

Rich, the husband, is now one of my closest friends. I was just in New Hampshire this summer and stayed with him and EJ, the youngest of the three kids. They’re all doing really well! Rich met a wonderful woman through the same friend who introduced him to Carolynne and has now been dating her for about two years. Melissa, Carolynne’s oldest child is about to graduate from RIT and Brian just started college this fall. I don’t get to see them as much as I would like, but they are and always will be so close to my heart. 

JC: You've got a project currently on Kickstarter called, "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea." What is the story about and why is this one so near and dear to you?

PG: The project is a four-year long visual documentary exploring life in one neighborhood along the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia. It’s an area in transition and the work looks at the collision of class occurring and also the residents’ relationship to the natural world.

Some of the early photographs were taken for a photo column while I was on staff at The Virginian-Pilot. The neighborhood is called Ocean View and it’s where I lived while I was in Norfolk. To me, it was this magic little pocket within a region of Virginia I never really felt at home in. I rented a little cottage on the water and it was the most beautiful place you could imagine. I was amazed that it was possible - much less affordable - for someone like me. I realized what a gift it was to live on the water and that that opportunity was quickly changing. I wanted to explore it, and be immersed in it, before it disappeared. 

Now it feels more like a right - for people regardless of their socioeconomic background and even in inner-city-like living situations - to have access to their own slice of the natural world. The body of work is also about people’s individual stories, and the spirit, charm, quirk and grit of the community. But I think nature is the personal connection for me. 

It’s been a hard project to let go of. I moved to California at the beginning of this year, but I’ve made several trips back to Ocean View to continue shooting. Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea is the largest body of work I’ve created to date. It harkens back to my fine art roots in a way I’ve previously never been able to do as a photojournalist. The subject matter and breadth just seems to fit a book form.  

Now that I’m working independently, I’m able to focus and follow through on things like I never was before. Books are expensive, no matter if you’re self-publishing like I am or working with a traditional publisher. Kickstarter seemed like the best way to raise funds and do pre-sales. It’s been a lot of work but a really fun and exciting process too. CNN Photos said they wanted to publish a story the day it launched, which was great. So we started a 44 day campaign on September 30th. 

I love tapping lots of resources and opinions when I’m working on a project. Nicole Fruge is always my primary editor from the earliest story concept conversations to the final edit. Photographers Ross Taylor and Matt Eich have weighed in on this work at various points, as have photo editors Mike Davis and Judy Walgren. I find it’s a great excuse to interact with other professionals whose work I respect. 

JC: As an independent photographer, what kinds of stories are the ones that engage you the most? Are you currently working on any long-term projects that you are able to share with us at this time?

PG: My main focus this year has been to finish two projects back on the East Coast. In addition to Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, I finished a story on a young gay black man living in public housing. As of late, the book has been a full time job. I’ve worked much longer days but have really enjoyed it. It’s been a way to expand my creativity beyond the process of making images. 

I have a few stories ideas out here on the West Coast and once I finish the book, hopefully I’ll be able to secure some funding to enable me to dive into them. 

One thing I love about this work is that I get really engaged with whatever I’m studying or photographing. Sometimes I start making pictures and that leads me to become more engaged, sometimes interest in a subject matter spurs the photographs. Either way, there’s discovery and continual learning. 

I’ve found that balancing narrative personal work with more conceptual, aesthetic work is a balance that really works. Both are so important to me. Long-term narrative storytelling on a single person or group is difficult. There’s a reason why so few people are doing it. But it is also incredibly effective and has a powerful ability to reach viewers and connect us.

JC: Lastly, what advice can you give to other photographers who may be considering venturing into the freelance world? Are you positive about the state of photojournalism right now? Do you have any last thoughts that you'd like to share with our readers on anything that we haven't covered?

PG: I think the quality of work right now in photojournalism is fantastic. The business aspects for it are not. But the potential audience is enormous and reaching it is much more democratic than it’s ever been. 

Personal relationships are critical during every step of the process - from finding subjects to photograph to finding editors who will publish the work. Identify your allies and stay true to them. Leave behind the ones who aren’t supportive. 

I also think it’s important to recognize the separation of work and income. There are only a tiny handful of people out there who are making a living shooting the work they are most passionate about. The rest of us have to be creative and remain dedicated to real work that matters - even if it doesn’t help pay the bills. 

We’re all feeling the crunch from the digital revolution. And ultimately we have to find a way to either change, or alternatively support the all-content-is-free internet model. With ad revenue and government funding shrinking, I think crowd funding will continue to be a key part of that. So please support your friends and the work that you think matters!

LINKS

 Do you have a story you think is a good candidate for Photo Journal? Email your suggestion to: jimcolton@aol.com