Nicholas Gervin knows Portland better than most people. He was raised on Newbury Street and has lived in the city nearly all his life.
Now 36, he spends five or six hours most days walking the streets, taking photos and preserving history. Gervin is among Portland’s keenest observers and biggest ambassadors. By his estimate, he has taken more than 60,000 photos of the city and its people over the past seven years – roughly 24 exposures a day.
He loves Portland, despite the challenges of the changing times. Part of the motivation of his work is simply to document the city and its people without judgment. He sees his work as a visual record of his time. “Portland is a beautiful place, and I love the diversity of the people,” he said.
Gervin recently began publishing a quarterly zine, called Machigonne, dedicated to his Portland photos. For his first issue, he highlighted in 40 pages, including both covers, the city’s network of underground tunnels. His second issue, which he published in June, focuses on his photographs of neighborhoods.
In each issue, he introduces the topic with a short piece of writing that summaries his philosophies and reveals his mindset. “In the days before the internet and well before social media, it used to be a necessity to reach out and build bonds with people who lived nearby,” he wrote in the neighborhood edition. “Are the gentrification of our cities across the country and our dependence on social technologies a formula for the demise of the American neighborhood? Or maybe a new beginning, a change in our cultural behavior? Perhaps what’s really being lost as outsiders overrun a place like Portland’s peninsula is not just the city’s character, but the very real web of relationships among the communities who were already there and are now displaced.”
Gervin’s photos also are showing up in exhibitions across Maine. Curator Bruce Brown included them in the exhibition “America Now,” opening Friday at the Portland Public Library. This exhibition is a version of the show that was on view last fall in Augusta. Gervin’s photographs also will appear in “Maine Everyday,” a photography show that Brown is curating at the Holocaust and Human Rights Center in Augusta, opening Aug. 24.
Brown, curator emeritus at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art, began paying attention to Gervin’s photos a year or two ago after seeing them in various group shows. “I was struck by his ability to photograph street people who seem to accept his photographing them,” Brown said. “The photos are well composed, and most have an edginess to them that makes you shiver a bit.”
Jana Halwick began showing his work at the Carver Hill Gallery in Camden for the same reasons. “There’s an authenticity to the work,” she said. “It isn’t opportunistic. It’s really sensitive. I think he is trying to get us to pay attention to these members of our community, whom we literally and figuratively kick to the curb. He wants us to see them and listen to their stories.”
Gervin is sensitive to people on Portland’s streets, he said. He’s not too far removed from them. He suffered a brain injury in an assault a decade ago, and has struggled with substance abuse.
Photography gives him both an outlet for his energy and attention. By concentrating on photography, he was able to overcome some of his struggles and provide direction forward. “For me, photography was a means of healing. Photography saved my life,” he said.
Gervin looks like an artist, bouncing around the streets of Portland’s Bayside neighborhood with a Polaroid camera in hand, another hanging from his neck and a backpack. A black T-shirt exposes his tattooed arms, and he wears a flat cap. He is invariably kind and patient. He falls into easy conversations with people, looking them in the eye, listening to their stories and asking their permission to make their portraits.
For him, photography provides a means to connect with his city. For others, his photographs provide a connection to a time and place.
WHERE: Portland Public Library
WHEN: Opens Friday, on view through July 28
HOW MUCH: Free