It wasn’t until after photographer Rita Nannini left New York that she grew fascinated by the city’s subways. While living in Manhattan’s Upper West Side for some 15 years in the 1980s and early ’90s, Nannini only took short trips on the 1 train for short trips — and rarely, given the subway system’s bad reputation at the time.
But after relocating to Princeton, New Jersey, with her husband in the ’90s, Nannini found that absence really did make the heart grow fonder — maybe even for pizza rat. (During visits back to New York to see friends and family in the years since her move, Nannini noted marked improvements in the subway’s facilities and ambience, she told CNN.)
And having learned of the “End of the Line” challenge — an urban legend reportedly popular among groups of teens who would board trains at random and ride them until their final destination, just because — Nannini decided to, well, challenge herself, by visiting every first and last stop across the subway’s lines.
Nannini’s take on the “End of the Line” experience saw her traveling some 665 miles of subway track across 26 routes and all five of the city’s boroughs. She took over 8,000 photos of the stations at each line’s ends, as well as the communities they served. In many cases, she rode the routes two or three times over to ensure she got ‘the shot.’ She described it, perhaps understatedly, as a “real labor of love.”
(“People have asked me, ‘well, don’t you want to do the London Underground next?’” she told CNN in a Zoom interview, laughing. “No thank you, I’m done. I’m done.”)
A selection of Nannini’s photos are now presented in her monograph “First Stop, Last Stop” — from the crisp modernity of the Oculus transit hub at the World Trade Center in downtown Manhattan (the E train) to the Tudor-inspired architecture of Forest Hills in Queens (the R train); from a child’s baptism in the Atlantic waters off Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach (the B train) to a group of teens’ soccer game in the Williamsbridge Oval park in the Bronx (D train); and from crowds in Times Square to crowds in Grand Central Station, courtesy of the one-stop-long 42nd Street Shuttle train.
“(The project) really showed me how important the subway is,” Nannini said, “and how sustainable it makes our lives.”
“It’s often said it’s that (my images show) the end of the lines — the ‘last stops,’” she said. “But the end of the line is really the beginning of the line for so many people. That totally reoriented the way that I looked at the project. It made me think about who the people and the communities that live at these points are. And what it is that the subway means to them.”
The New York City subway system saw, on average, around 3.2 million riders a day in 2022, the most recent year for which the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) has made statistics available. It is the largest public transit system in the US, but its scale belies the (at times unwanted) intimacy of a commute, or the connections that can be fostered among straphangers whether traveling across boroughs or just a couple of local stops.
The “End of the Line” experience is just one of many gamified exploits possible to undertake on the New York subways; other similarly Herculean tasks include the “Subway Challenge,” which offers a Guinness World Record for the individual able to stop at all 472 of the city’s stations in the shortest possible time (it’s currently held by Kate Jones, at 22 hours, 14 minutes and 10 seconds) and simply trying to connect through Times Square at rush hour with a carry-on suitcase.
Whereas Jones raced around the city, literally, Nannini, was more inclined to take her time, starting her self-imposed challenge in 2013 and only shooting the project’s final images last year.
“I took the last shot last January. I was on the A train, and I thought ‘Oh, I really need to get just one more shot out in Inwood,’” Nannini told CNN of finishing touches on her book. “I get on the train and this man sits down across from me, covered in dust. He had gotten off from a construction job, I think. But he had flowers in his hands, and of course, he went right to sleep. The whole ride, I’m thinking, ‘Who’s he giving the flowers to?’ That was the image: his dust-covered hands with flowers. He got off somewhere in Midtown.”
When you drive in a car all the time in the suburbs, you don’t have those encounters,” she continued. “Right? People enter your life on the subway. It’s a beautiful thing about New York — and about the subway system.”
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