Portland Underground

By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  March 13, 2013

Then, in 2008, Gerv hit rock bottom after being jumped and assaulted on the street in Boston; the attack resulted in a traumatic brain injury and post-concussion syndrome (historically called shell shock). He experienced disabling headaches, tinnitus, and depression. Of those days, he says starkly: "I thought it was the end of my life."

His rebirth (he's been clean and sober for four years now) came when he rediscovered his love for photography. "I guess you could say that picking up my camera again and starting to explore was the catalyst for my recovery," he says. Armed with a better camera (and a chip on his shoulder), he began to document his surroundings, calling on his past experiences with graffiti and skateboarding to guide him to remote settings. He soon discovered an international online community of like-minded risk-takers who shared location information, safety procedures (respirators are necessary for sewer expeditions; ropes are required for descents to the bottoms of underground chambers), and pictures as well as photography techniques.

"Taking photographs in some of the locations I find myself exploring can be very challenging," Gerv explains, due to low (or no) light and tight spaces. He's learned to never leave home without his wireless shutter remote, a tripod, and a high-powered flashlight, all of which aid in the art of "light painting," a skill we practiced in the China Drains that involves using a flashlight to "paint" the walls during a long exposure (look for an upcoming exhibition of some of Gerv's beautiful UE photos at the Urban Farm Fermentory's Bay One space).


It's not hard to understand the addictive nature of UE. Gerv is always wondering: "What's down the manhole? What's around the next corner? What does that sunset look like from that rooftop?" And as we made our way through the China Drains, I too wanted to keep going and going — to reach the end, to see where the winding pathway would take us. (Ultimately we stopped about a thousand feet in; both of our backs ached from not being able to fully stand inside the drain.) For Gerv, who often explores on his own, the satisfaction of answering those questions makes the occasional danger or discomfort worthwhile.

Despite the existence of web forums and the occasional offline gathering of UrbEx enthusiasts, "I saw an absence — nobody was documenting this subculture," he says, at least not in a comprehensive way, and certainly not in print. Thus the Urban Exploration magazine was born (available both in hard copy and online at uemag.com), a celebration of worldwide explores. "By documenting it, I'm trying to contribute to the overall understanding of what's going on."

As the editor, Gerv must reach out to and secure the trust of a traditionally secretive group. "Gaining respect from other explorers is difficult," Gerv admits, and to that end he is always conscious to remind me that he speaks just for himself and not for the UrbEx community as a whole.

He seems to have done okay so far. The three existing issues of UE magazine are breathtaking compilations of photos and interviews, touching on explores of an extremely creepy abandoned sanitarium, crumbling theaters, overgrown industrial sites, decaying homes and buildings, an abandoned power plant in Hungary, a peeling spiral staircase in Italy, the heights of a construction crane in Toronto. The fourth issue is due out soon, and with summer around the corner, now is the time to be inspired.

"I want people to go out and have adventures," Gerv says. "To be somewhere and do something that no one else is doing."

But always remember this motto, coined originally by an Aussie UE crew: When it rains, no drains.

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Related: Underground downtown: Looking beneath the streets, Why we live here, Slam Dunk Season, More more >
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