Where Ocean Property Is Still Affordable

One photographer’s love affair with a seaside town


In one of the many strange scenes in Preston Gannaway’s new book, a ceramic camel peaks out from the side of a bar while water crashes onto the street beside it. The drinking establishment bears a sign that reads “Noreaster Specials.” This is Ocean View, Virginia, in a nutshell.

The bar and camel were Gannaway’s introduction to the area, albeit during a more pleasant time of year. While house-hunting in 2009, Gannaway took an off-ramp to Ocean View, part of Norfolk, where she was immediately greeted by the site of a dive bar called the Thirsty Camel. She felt a surge of affection for the area. Hailing from a life spent mainly in the mountains, the opportunity to live by the ocean was a breath of fresh (sea) air.

“It was so surprising and quirky and a little offbeat,” she said.

Gannaway spent five years photographing the grit and beauty of Ocean View. That work culminates in her new book, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, which has received well-deserved praise.

After working on several emotionally intense stories (including the Pulitzer Prize winner Remember Me) Gannaway was ready to photograph something more light-hearted. She approached Ocean View differently than other stories. Instead of telling the story of a person, she was creating a portrait of a place.

“Drill down into a neighborhood like Ocean View and you will find our country, our culture, our fellow citizens, ourselves,” wrote Sam Abell in his foreword to the book.

Unlike other seaside areas, Ocean View feels down to earth and accessible. Instead of tourists, the neighborhood is made up of full-time residents, mostly working class. It’s affordable and racially diverse, something that Gannaway hopes won’t change over time.

“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.”

“Ocean View is one of the few places you can afford to live that close to beach,” she said. “My hope for the neighborhood is that it continues to be like that, and that people aren’t pushed out.”

One of these people is Marquis ‘Quest’ Parker. When Gannaway first met Quest, she was feature hunting for her paper, The Virginian-Pilot. When time allowed, she liked head over to Ocean View to make photos.

During this particular visit, she photographed Quest and his son feeding seagulls. When she stopped to talk, he told her, “I think it’s really important to teach my son to connect to nature.” She was struck by this statement, and the two exchanged information. In Gannaway’s words, the photo was “just okay.”

A year and a half later, Gannaway and her partner had left the east coast for the west, and she was making trips back to Virginia to finish the project. Making up for her previous lackluster photo of him, Gannaway emailed Quest out of the blue, and the two ended up spending a fair amount of time together. He became the voice of the Kickstarter video Gannaway used to fund her book.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lagm61Zenb0#action=share

“He was one of the people I connected with at the end of the project that really encapsulated a lot of what I was trying to show,” Gannaway said. “He’s a black, single dad, running his own business, is very spiritual and really loves being close to the water. He wants to pass that on to his son.”

It’s people like Quest that make Ocean View compelling, and Gannaway’s book bursts with their stories and eccentricities. There are fisherman and young lovers, shriners and soldiers, all bathed in fading golden light. There is no mistaking her affection for this place and its characters.

After five years of continuous shooting, Gannaway says she’s finally done with her work in Ocean View. That realization is bittersweet.

“It’s sad,” she said. “If I could’ve kept shooting, realistically, I would’ve. I feel like the book has been my eulogy, a way to have some closure with my time there.”

“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.’”

All photos from Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. Copyright © 2014 by Preston Gannaway. Images may not be used without photographer’s permission.

The softcover is on exhibit at Davis Orton Gallery and will also be shown at the Griffin Museum of Photography in early 2015.

Softcovers and limited edition hardcovers are available for purchase here.


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