Dissecting the Layers of Portland: An Interview with Nick Gervin

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(Editor’s Note: Interview by Eric Kim. Photographs by Nick Gervin.)

Eric: Hey Nick great to have you. Can you start off by telling us a (brief) life story and how you first picked up a camera?

Nick: Thanks for having me, Eric. I first picked up a camera in 1992 at the age of twelve. I wanted to document the graffiti art I was discovering in and around Portland, Maine. At that time, the city was in poor shape and it had a lot of derelict buildings that I would skip school to explore.

I really had no clue what I was doing when it came to photography; I was more of a point-and-shooter then. Still, I felt that the documentation was important and, later on, it would prove to be. Like all things in life, the graffiti didn’t last forever and the photographs I had made then helped document a subculture. I continued to point-and-shoot over the years, mostly with disposable cameras.

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At the same time, I was an avid skateboarder. From the age of ten to twenty five, I thrashed the streets of Portland and Boston. In one form or another, I was in constant contact with my urban surroundings. Unfortunately, I fell into drinking and drugs at an early age as well.

By twenty five, I was a full blown alcoholic. Alcoholism had consumed my interests and just when I was at the end of my rope (unemployed and most likely on my way to a permanent couch-surfing holiday) fate intervened. I was assaulted and suffered a traumatic brain injury from the ass-kicking. Doctors also diagnosed me with Post Concussion Syndrome, something I still deal with everyday.

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I had no choice but to get sober, which I did on my own and it was a very difficult challenge.  During my early stages of recovery, I needed something to keep me motivated and positive so I returned to photography in April of 2010.

With my camera in hand, I was drawn towards the familiar territory of urban exploration, graffiti documentation, and, eventually, night photography.  I didn’t start making photographs in the streets until July of 2013.

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How do you see your interest in street art, urban exploration, and street photography influence one another?

Well, it all comes down to cities. I see cities maybe a bit differently than most. I divide them up into three layers: Above-Street, Street and Sub-Street. Urban exploration can take place in all three. Street art (in Portland, anyway) occurs mostly on the Street level, and Above-Street when a writer hits a rooftop spot.

Street photography is done on the streets, obviously. Each layer of a city presents different opportunities and challenges to overcome as a photographer. Each is a part of a bigger picture that is rarely thoroughly explored by any one individual over a lifetime.

To me, a city is more than just its shops and streets. It’s more than its tourist traps and often exaggerated persona. It’s the filth, chaos and harsh reality of the human living condition. It’s the unseen infrastructure that makes population density possible. Cities are about perseverance and failure all at once. They are beautiful in so many ways and I truly enjoy experiencing them to their fullest potential. When I find myself getting burned out on one interest or city layer, I simply switch gears to another.

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Overall, my interests kind of blend together seamlessly through my love of cities, but there is one common thread for me. Courage. It takes balls to climb underground and explore a Tidal Combined Sewer Overflow or to use a flash while making photographs of a street fight unfolding right in front of you.

I guess it’s this courage (or lack of, at times) that influences me the most, more so than the subject matter I’m documenting. It’s something you have to work up to, and it can be easily lost, only to have to start all over again.

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What do you look for when you’re shooting on the streets?

I try and place myself in interesting situations. There is always a bit of luck involved, but it really comes down to being able to read your surroundings. I basically follow my curiosity and, more importantly, my instincts. I often find myself drawn to the no-man’s-lands of a given city. Places where people tend to act more like themselves. Areas like these often give off a sense of lawlessness to people, making for interesting situations to say the least.

I often find myself making photos at night for the same reason; people tend to let loose at night, especially on Friday nights mid-summer or on full moons.  I look to place myself in the grey areas, places that fall between the cracks, potentially unpredictable yet interesting. Then I just have to hope that I have the speed and skills to capture the key moments when they unfold.

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How is it to shoot the streets of Portland compared to other places you’ve been to or shot? What gives the city and its citizens a unique vibe?

As a rather small city currently on the rise, Portland has retained its cobblestone streets and its working waterfront, while making room for vibrant and eclectic food, music, and art scenes, and a shit-ton of “characters”. I should know, I’m one of them.

Unfortunately, I feel that Portland, like a lot of other cities, is losing its soul, though. Corporations are taking over, killing each city’s charm and replacing it with stale, prefabricated so-called “developments”. This is nothing new, it’s been happening for decades, but never on this scale and at this rate. Even so, that’s what cities do; they are ever changing environments.

That being said, I am a strong believer in the “home court advantage”. We’ve all heard the complaint from a few photographers that shooting in the city they live in is quite boring, or they have done it all before. My reply to that is: “You’re not digging deep enough, you’re not pushing yourself hard enough and, most importantly, you’re not stepping out of your comfort zone.”

Having a home court advantage allows you to immerse yourself in your work, if you so choose. You can truly fall into rhythm with your surroundings and learn your environment which, in return, will grant you a deeper insight, yielding stronger images. When I travel to other cities, it feels like I manage to just scratch the surface in the short amount of time I can afford.

To really get to know a place is to spend more than a weekend or even a week there. A lot of people have it in their heads that they need to travel abroad to make meaningful photographs and, of course, this is one option, but have you truly explored in your own back yard first? There’s always another side to a city that you’re not familiar with, even if you live there.

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Who are some photographers or artists who have most influenced your vision?

WeeGee, a.k.a Arthur Fellig, has had a profound impact on my photography. His use of flash, his ability to read a city, his knack for being in the right place at the right time and, of course, his subject matter. The man was a genius in my opinion.

To name a few others: Lee Friedlander, Robert Frank, Jill Freedman, Bruce Gilden, Boogie, Martha Cooper, Henry Chalfant and Keizo Kitajima.  I have also just completed a workshop taught by Charlie Kirk which had great influence on my photographic process.

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What did you learn from Charlie’s workshop that most helped you? What are your main learning points?

The workshop was a six month course, with one or two assignments for each month. We covered Separation, Depth, Light, Shadow, Exposure and Emotion. We also studied the In-Public, Burn My Eye and Magnum photos quite intensively. What I found the most helpful were the conversations I had with Charlie and the encouragement he gave me to push forward. Up until I started the course, I had virtually no contact with other likeminded photographers.

It was great to finally get some solid feedback from Charlie, and the others attending the course, on the work I had produced the prior year and throughout the six months. I felt like I was barking up the right tree, as far as understanding what makes a quality photo before I started the course, but completing the assignments that I did, really opened up my mind to seeing my full potential and the development of a personal style to pursue. Like I said, I have been shooting in the streets for a little over a year and a half, and now with this workshop under my belt, I feel like I am heading in the right direction for my current vision.

Charlie really took the time to address each attending photographer’s strengths and weaknesses on a one-on-one basis, making sure everyone attending walked away a better, more confident photographer. He also gave me some encouragement and advice on putting together my first ‘zine titled, BrickWork, that I just recently self-published. I highly recommend others to check out his next workshop if you’re looking to push yourself forward, or if you’re looking to learn more about photography in general.

Here are just a few personal takeaway points from the workshop, in no particular order: Even though you may be shooting in B&W, keep color tonality in mind. Don’t get arrested. If your photos don’t have a degree of depth to them, there is a risk that they will feel flat, distant, voyeuristic and lacking in energy.

Can you tell us more about your new zine: Brickwork? What inspired the project, and how did you go about editing, sequencing, formatting, and printing it? What tips would you give to people who would want to make their own zine?

Really, the project is ongoing and will be for at least four more years (or until I feel I have the makings of my first book), but I wanted to share some of the work I have produced in and around Portland thus far in a printed format. I wanted to get away from the internet and make something with my own hands. So a limited print ‘zine fit the bill. The only question was how the hell do you make one? I wanted the publication to stand out a bit, to have more to it than some paper and staples holding it together.

Ironically, I used the internet to research the different methods of constructing ‘zines and I settled on trying to make my attempt at a perfect-bound format. The editing was a continual process over the course of a year. I slowly started stacking up images I would include and weeded out others that I may have liked but just didn’t fit the style and theme that began to emerge. After I had something I thought was presentable, I put together a PDF and shared it with Charlie Kirk and a few other alumni from his workshops for a critique.

After a few minor tweaks in Adobe InDesign, I was ready to print. Printing, even though it may be digital, still is a science. Trust me, I found out the hard way, through trial and error. Things to keep in mind when it comes to printing: ink type, paper and, obviously, your printer settings. These all need to line up. Easier said than done. Then there is the formatting for perfect-bound printing.

InDesign has a feature for this, but it’s still tricky to figure out two-sided printing and not have one side come out upside-down. A hundred test prints later, you may be ready to start the assembling process. Like anything in life, it gets easier with practice. Keep in mind that, if this is your first ‘zine, you will need to sink a bit of cash into it for materials and supplies. An investment if you plan on making more in the future. Overall it has been a fun experience thus far, even with the learning curve.

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Who are some contemporary street photographers you recommend people check out, and any last pieces of advice for street photographers starting off?

Hopefully, without sounding too much like an ass-kisser, I highly recommend others to check out Charlie Kirk. His posted work online, as well as some of his current work he was kind enough to share with me is really inspiring. Also you may like to check out (if you’re not already familiar with them) Ed Templeton, Khalik Allah and Jonathan Auch.

As far as advice goes for new photographers looking to make photos in the streets, I’ll have to quote WeeGee, as I couldn’t say it better myself:

“Remember… the field is wide open. Be original and develop your own style, but don’t forget above anything and everything else… be human… think… feel. When you find yourself beginning to feel a bond between yourself and the people you photograph, when you laugh and cry with their laughter and tears, you will know you are on the right track… Good luck”.

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By ERIC KIM

Artist-Philosopher