Photographer Rita Nannini was once fascinated by a game called “End of the Line”: Participants in the game—usually teenagers—board a train at random, ride it all the way until the last stop and explore the area they find themselves in. Nannini, who has been a working photographer since the late 1970s, felt the concept could make for a compelling project one day.
“I was immediately intrigued, imagining all the visual possibilities at the terminal stops,” writes Nannini in a statement. “In 2013, I began photographing them and soon realized that the last stop for some is the first stop for others. That altered my perspective and this project.”
Since then, Nannini has photographed every first and last stop on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) and gathered the images in a book. The volume, titled First Stop Last Stop, depicts the spirit of America’s largest public transit system. It’s been in the works for over ten years.
According to a 2022 report from the MTA, more than three million people ride the subway every day. Nannini, whose relationship with the subway has evolved throughout her life, wasn’t always one of them. Forty years ago, she felt it wasn’t a safe space to freely navigate. “When I lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in the 1980s, I limited myself to traveling on the No. 1 train because the subway then was so dangerous,” she says in the statement.
Since then, Nannini has gotten to know the ins and outs of every line. Her subway journey involved boarding 26 routes across each of the city’s boroughs and covering 665 miles of track. She captured roughly 8,000 images of the subway stations and the surrounding communities.
“Some stops boast special attractions or landmarks just beyond the turnstile, while other stations themselves are the attraction,” she adds.
Nannini decided the project made the most sense as a book after Covid-19 struck New York City, leaving the art galleries deserted.
“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,” Nannini tells Time Out’s Natalie Melendez. “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.”
Her images of the sprawling transit system capture the city’s sheer size. The E train, for instance, ends (or starts) at the World Trade Center in the busy financial district; the B train begins (or stops) at Brighton Beach, away from the city’s hustle and bustle.
Nannini tells CNN’s Alex Rees that she took the last photo for the project on the A train in January.
“I get on the train, and this man sits down across from me, covered in dust,” she recalls. “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.”
Real-life characters—like the man on the A train—are part of Nannini’s photographic love letter to New York. And even though her book is complete, she is still riding public transit and learning more about the city.
As she says in the statement, “Nearly 8,000 photographs and ten years later, I am still amazed at where the subway can take me.”
Editor’s note, February 12, 2024: A previous version of this story misidentified a photo taken from the Staten Island Ferry.