A few months back, Eric Holsinger—a reader and fellow creative—got in touch to tell me that Nicholas Gervin is at once one of the best and most under-recognized photographers in Portland, Maine. I checked out his work, fell in love, and reached out to interview him about his eye, style and approach.
WARNING: Some swear-y bits below.
I wanna start not necessarily by blowing smoke up your ass, but telling you that your photography is great and immediately striking. In it, I don’t see the Portland that I know at all, and so it’s a re-introduction to a city that I’ve been in for over ten years.
Thank you. I’ve lived here off and on for quite a while as well. I guess I know the city pretty well and I know what I’m looking for, so it’s just a matter of putting in the work. There’s a lot to Portland that people miss or don’t pay attention to.
I read that interview you did with Eric Kim on his street photography blog, and you had been saying that a city is like the filth, the chaos, the harsh reality, the human condition, and so I immediately started to think of the direction that Portland is going in. You touched on that a bit. You said it’s losing its soul. Can you talk a little more about that? Where do you see Portland going?
Portland’s gone through a lot if you look at its history. Heck, it’s even burned down four times. When I was growing up here in the early ‘90s, the East End was mainly a poor neighborhood and everybody that lived on the West End was rich. Downtown was basically a ghost town due to the Maine Mall stealing all the business. Now, pretty much the whole peninsula is wealthy and well-off people and once again business is thriving. To me, the last standing neighborhood with a lot of character is the Bayside, but even that is getting a lot of push for changes that will probably happen in the next ten years. I imagine that the whole peninsula eventually will be wealthy people. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Wealthy people have to live somewhere too, but at the same time it’s a little saddening to see the neighborhoods undergoing such vast change and perhaps not all for the better. But that’s what cities do; they are in constant transition. There is movement and energy to a city and that’s one of the things I’m after in my photographs.
But it seems to some degree, looking at your work, that you’re still sort of able to find that old DNA in the city somewhere.
Yeah, it’s always there. The cool thing is, when you walk down the street and take a look around, you’re looking at history. Portland is vivid with untold stories. I like to say that for every brick in Portland there is a thousand stories. And there’s a lot of bricks in this city. [Laughs] But, people kind of go through life not really appreciating where they live. Most people go to work and follow the same route they drive every day and they traverse a city from point A to point B and really kind of miss the whole point; it’s the journey not the destination. [Laughs] Times change, but the basic building blocks, or the DNA as you put it, remains constant. Or at the very least, changes at a much slower rate.
You know, the police show up a lot in your photos, or from what I’ve seen online. Is that largely because you’re out at night, is that something that you’re looking for, or are they just always around?
One of my biggest influences when it comes to photography is Author Fellig, better known as WeeGee. If you’re not familiar with his work, he was a hard hitting news photographer from the 1930s through the1960s. He earned his nickname and reputation by always appearing first at major crimes scenes, as if a Ouija board had led him to the spot. Studying his work really inspired me to make photos like he did and the police, or police matters, were often his subjects. Another major influence for me is Jill Freedman’s work, including her book Street Cops. I’m not out there to paint the police in a bad way; I respect the officers that work hard to keep our community safe. It’s no easy task that they face everyday, that’s for sure.
You had mentioned also in that interview that you had stopped drinking some time ago.
No, I don’t drink anymore. I’m a recovered alcoholic with six years sober under my belt.
I stopped drinking last year and, you know, I hear you talking a lot about people who fall into routines, and I realized how much of a routine drinking had been. [Laughs] And so when you stop drinking you’re like, “Well, what the fuck am I gonna do?” Has that—to some degree—fueled your ability and willingness to explore in a way that you weren’t doing before?
I’ve kind of always explored ever since I was a kid, I don’t know why… I guess because exploring is a human instinct that I often give into. We all want to explore things, but we live in a society that’s more and more strict, with more and more signs telling us not to trespass, with more and more invisible borders and zones not to cross.
There was definitely that period where I was getting sober and I literally would just sit on a bench downtown and be like, “What the fuck do normal people do?” What do you do if you’re not out getting drunk? It’s sad that I got to that point, but that’s where I was several years ago. I kind of lost touch with myself and pretty much everything. Without photography, I would probably still be drinking day in and day out—as just another bar fly. Making photographs has been therapeutic for me in so many ways.
Putting a camera in my hands gives me an excuse to go places as well as something to keep me busy while I’m there. Photography helps balance my anxieties. I don’t really go out to bars anymore. I mean, I socialize with my close friends, but honestly I’d rather spend all day socializing with people I don’t know, taking photographs and interacting with the city. I really enjoy it. You know, you only have so much time on this planet; how much do you wanna spend wasting it? I felt like being in the bar scene, and working in bars, that I didn’t accomplish a goddamn thing for years. I paid my rent, yeah that’s good. Paid some taxes, but there’s more to life than that, and I guess I choose to live it to the fullest now. Even if it’s just within my community. I don’t have to travel abroad to feel like I’m experiencing life. It’s right here.
That’s such a fascinating point. I remember when I first moved to Portland in 2001 and I used to not be able to sleep and I would just walk around at night to sort of see what was going on, and it’s like you’re literally in a different country. You’re just in a completely different framework of reality.
It’s cool. Portland is a unique place. I really enjoy living here and I am very passionate about the city.
How are you received by the people you run into and the people you’re shooting?
Well, it depends. I have this belief: when you go out shooting and you’re in a really good mood, you’re open and you just feel confident. That good feeling radiates from you and bounces back off of the people you interact with. I mean a lot of the people I photograph I don’t ask permission of, I just take a photograph and deal with whatever happens afterwards. Sometimes it’s a conversation, sometimes it’s a dirty look and other times it’s a smile or a handshake. It’s different each day, you have to learn to read people and your surroundings. There are days that I feel not as confident or I’m not in the best mood and I don’t usually make as many photographs.
There are even days I go out for hours and come home not having fired a single exposure. Those days are tough. It’s really a reflection of how you’re feeling, how you’re doing that day and—no matter what—staying the course.
Well, I hear what you’re saying about it’s your confidence and the way you’re projecting yourself, but I saw one of your photos and it looks like some grizzly dude with “white pride” tattoos.
Yeah, that was a tough one to make.
How did you approach that?
I was feeling really confident that day, having captured several great photos earlier, and on the way home I happened to pass a barbershop that I’ve walked by a thousand times. For some reason, I looked into the window and there the guy was. A burly man with very provocative tattoos, to say the least. My desire to make the photograph outweighed my fear, so I walk into the shop, it was like a scene out of a movie where the record scratched. Everyone stopped and stared at me. I said something like, “This barbershop is really cool, I’d like to take some photos, if that’s okay?” The barber was kind and said, “Sure,” so I just started shooting around the shop. After a few minutes, I just leaned in and took the shot I was after of the man.
And, you know, he didn’t really say much.
But that was pretty intimidating. And then he started talking to me and telling me stories. Again, I don’t condone that man’s beliefs, obviously, but he’s an interesting character. You know, he’s here in the city; he’s a part of it just like everybody else so, yeah, I made the photograph. I admit, I was sweating a bit on that one. [Laughs]
Can you talk a bit about your ‘zine?
The recent one I published, BrickWork?
I just put together my first handmade street photography ‘zine entitled, BrickWork. I did a limited run of 50 copies and I have around 20 left for sale. The ‘zine is perfect-bound, 56 pages and features 40 gritty black and white photographs I made over the course of one year in Portland, Maine. I am working towards my first book, but that will take a few more years until I feel I have really covered the city in-depth. I don’t mind sharing some of my photographs on the internet, via my website or social media, but I’m a photographer; I like to actually make photographs. Making jpeg files online isn’t really why I do this. I want to make prints, even if they’re digitally printed. So a ‘zine seemed like a great way to showcase some of my work captured thus far. You can order copies on my website. I may make a few more ‘zines on different subjects in the near future, so stay tuned.
BONUS: Over at Knack Factory—in an interview extra, so to speak—Nick offers some great advice for emerging photographers.
PHOTO CREDITS: Nicholas Gervin