A typical subway trip may only take 10 to 20 minutes, but Rita Nannini's subway journey took 10 years.
The photographer set out to travel all 665 miles of NYC's subway tracks, photographing the first and final stops on every single subway line in the subway system.
First Stop Last Stop, Nannini’s first book, is the tangible culmination of that project, where Nannini explores the varying communities along the NYC subway’s terminal stops and their relationship to public transit.
Nannini got her first break as an environmental portrait photographer in the late ’70s and early ’80s when she lived in the Upper West Side. In those early years of her career, Nannini didn’t use the subway much, as she says it was more dangerous, dirtier and more complicated to ride back then. She never considered the subway a viable subject for her photography until much later, long after she left the city for Princeton, New Jersey.
“I had heard about this game that people played later on, fast forward to 2011/2012, of teenagers getting on any subway and riding to the end of the line and getting out and exploring the neighborhoods and then getting back on and going home,” says Nannini of her inspiration. “I never used the subway as a way to get around the rest of the city, so I was immediately struck by the visual possibilities.”
Starting in 2013, Nannini made trips to the city to explore and photograph the subway’s terminal stops—you can find the first picture she took for the project in 2013 at Far Rockaway at the end of the A train in the book. But the idea to turn her project into a book didn’t come until after the artist moved back to the city in 2019. She decided the vastness of the project made better sense in a book instead of an exhibition, besides, the start of the pandemic in 2020 had closed all of the city’s galleries.
“That was a good time to focus on [the book] because you realize how important the subway is to many people, especially during the pandemic, that still had to get to their job,” says Nannini. “So many people could work from home, but the healthcare workers, a lot of people, still had to take the subway. That was actually when I really decided to do a book and to focus solely on that.”
The end result? A visually stunning book, captivating from even before the first photo. The book’s exterior boasts a shiny metallic surface, giving it a true subway feel. On the right side of the book, the pages are color-coded by the MTA’s signature subway line colors. Even the book's rectangular layout (designed by Caleb Cain Marcus at Luminosity Lab) plays a role, opening up to the dimensions of an actual subway car.
Once inside the book, you’re instantly greeted by beautiful panoramic images of the red line’s terminal stops—starting with the 1 train, followed by the 3 and so forth. Along the way, the author shares tidbits of information about notable stations and neighborhoods. On the Brooklyn Bridge City Hall page, for example, Nannini mentions that the original City Hall station is now only accessible via private tours.
Just as the first subway photo Nannini took is included in the book, so is the last one taken in January of 2023. Right before the book went into production, Nannini photographed the hands of a construction worker holding a bouquet of flowers on the A train in Inwood. It’s a real, candid moment that reflects life in NYC, as do the rest of the photographs in the book.
Nannini captures the everyday New Yorker waiting at the station, sitting in the train, running fruit stands on the sidewalk, spending time with their loved ones. And though there aren’t dates on the photos, it’s relatively easy to pick out what point in time they might have been taken. People wearing masks in empty stations points to the peak of the pandemic around 2020. Puffer jackets and beanies mark the cold winter season. Every photo offers a dynamic look into the life and neighborhoods along the subway’s terminal stops, no matter where they may be.
The book wraps up with “Notes from Underground” by Virginia Hines and an afterword by Nannini.
“The subway is such a beautiful thing in that it connects so many different people from all over the city, from all over the world in a very beautiful way to get to where they have to go,” says Nannini. “It belongs to the people, and it should always be that way. It's what made New York, New York, that it connected so many neighborhoods and people to jobs and opportunities.”
First Stop Last Stop is now available for purchase online for $45.
Nannini’s photographs of all five Bronx lines will be shown at the Gallery for ARTful Medicine at Montefiore Einstein in the Bronx from October to December 2023.