8 Questions with Preston Gannaway - a Pulitzer Prize Winning Photographer

As an independent documentary photographer and filmmaker, Preston Gannaway focuses on intimate stories about American families and subcultures. Her story on the St. Pierre family, Remember Me, was awarded the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for feature photography. 

As a participant in the Dickerman Prints Artist-in-Residence program, Preston completed a new series of photographic prints from her Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea project. We recently sat down to chat with Preston about her life and career, as she prepares for the upcoming The Residents: Volume III event.

 

Bathing, by Preston Gannaway

DP: What does photography mean to you?

PG: Photography for me personally is a language, a creative outlet, a way to affect social change, a livelihood, a shared human connection, a reminder of beauty, a way to understand the world. It’s so many things.

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You spent years working in the newspaper industry before moving on to freelance work and passion projects. Can you speak a bit to that transition?

Twins, by Preston Gannaway

I was frustrated with the newsroom barriers I hit while trying to do work I felt was important. I realized that too often my goals were at odds with the newspaper’s goals; it seemed like the right time to leave. My partner got a job in San Francisco so we decided to move West and and for me to give freelancing a try.

A lot of the work I do is still the same, most of my clients are newspapers and magazines. But I have so much more Flexibility to choose how I spend my time. Almost three years later, I miss the paycheck but I can’t imagine going back. Ultimately, I don’t want anyone else to be able to claim ownership over my work.

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Your work focuses on documentary photography; specifically, intimate stories about American families and subcultures. How did you become drawn to this genre of photography?


I think I grew up always feeling like an outsider. I suppose many of us did. Because of that, I’ve always been drawn to people who operate outside of the mainstream. Even as a child I felt that way, so it was a natural thing to be drawn to in my work life as well. In terms of the intimate work, I was lucky to be trained by a photo editor I had at the Concord Monitor named Dan Habib when I was first starting out. Getting photographs of intimate moments was a job requirement. And then I saw how effective it could be.

. . .

To create such intimate portraits, you must spend a lot of time with the families you photograph. How do you choose your subjects and develop these relationships?

Sledding, by Preston Gannaway

Relationships are crucial to my work but they can be built over a span of minutes or years. Being genuine and honest is a big part of it.

I find if I’m comfortable with myself and what I’m doing, it helps put people at ease. I try to be non-threatening and unassuming. I don’t carry a lot of gear with me. That said, some people are open to being documented and some aren’t, it’s important to spot the difference. I try not to push people.

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Can you tell us one of your favorite stories from your career?

I got to spend a day with President Obama while he was still a senator campaigning for the New Hampshire presidential primary. He was very personable, as was his staff. It was one of those days on the job that was filled with seemingly insignificant details that I’ll hold as cherished memories for a lifetime.

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What projects are you working on during your residency at Dickerman Prints?

I recently published a book on my project, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. During my Dickerman residency, I’m focusing on creating an exhibition of the work. I’m really happy to have this opportunity.

. . .

Watermelon, by Preston Gannaway

Winning the Pulitzer Prize for feature photography is an incredible accomplishment. Congratulations! How did that come about? What was the process like?

Thank you! Yes, it was an amazing honor. From 2006 to 2008, reporter Chelsea Conaboy and I documented a family as they dealt with the mother’s terminal cancer. We following Rich and Carolynne St. Pierre, and their children, through her sickness and during the grieving process.

The award was for that photo story. I submitted it for consideration. Though I must admit, I was in total shock and disbelief when I heard it won. Rich came with me to the newsroom as the news was made public. He also attended the ceremony at Columbia University in New York with me. We’re close friends now and I’m still documenting the family today.

. . .

What advice do you have to those among us who dream of following their passion and turning fine art photography into a career choice?

Oysters, by Preston Gannaway

What advice do you have to those among us who dream of following their passion and turning fine art photography into a career choice?

I’m still trying to Figure out if fine art photography can become part of my career! I mean, at least from a business standpoint. I’m grateful to have editorial photography help pay the bills. But one of the things I’ve learned recently is how beneficial it is to connect with people one-on-one. It’s really tough to make those connections from a cold call. I’m a big proponent of portfolio reviews as a way to get your work in front of someone you’d like to work with.

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Thanks so much!

Thank you! And thanks again to everyone at Dickerman Prints for supporting this project! 

Plankers, by Preston Gannaway

To meet Preston and see her latest work from Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, be sure to stop by opening night of The Residents: Volume III - Friday, December 4, 6-9pm at Dickerman Prints Gallery - 1141 Howard Street, San Francisco.

Click here to learn more or to RSVP