First Stop Last Stop by Rita Nannini
(2023) is a journey through the NYC Subway system via the first and last stop of every train. Nannini began shooting images of the subway in 2013 and over the past decade has been intentionally riding the subway, end to end, to capture the feelings, mood, lighting, colors, architecture, and community of the surrounding area. The layout of the book is the first thing to catch my eye: it’s long and thin like a subway car. The images are usually one per page but sometimes there are two square-like photos to take up one page. Nannini connects with each space she’s in, which often means photographing the people in that space. People eating, people working, people hanging out, people looking directly at the camera and the photographer. This book is a collection of moments of joy on the subway, not the traditional isolation photographers have made it out to be in the past. It’s a celebration of the Subway. (There’s even a fold out of the Subway map when you get to the back of the book!) Certain images that pop out to me are the ones without people in them. A study of the subway seat’s color scheme, the design of the ceiling inside the station. Infrastructure at the end of the line is not something the everyday New Yorker will see, but Nannini makes sure we see all the various stop signs, yellow iron bollards where the tracks stop, and staircases leading away from a terminal. There is a great sense of verticality and the separation of above and below. Of course the subway runs under the city, but as it gets out of Manhattan and into the outer boroughs the train often becomes elevated, looking down on the streets below it. The photographer does an excellent job showcasing the levels of the system, highlighting stairs going up to quirky exits and the green paint that covers the stairs down from the elevated tracks. There are four trains that terminate at Coney Island in Brooklyn, and Nannini takes this opportunity to show us the boardwalk, over and over. Half of these images are successful, a full spread of the boardwalk with the ocean fading in the background and a man holding a giant snake like a carnival barker, and the other half kind of fall flat – only due to their redundancy. Another spread that jumped out at me was the one at the southern end of the E train,World Trade Center. There is a little bit of writing noting that no one died on 9/11 inside the subway system and the image that accompanied it was a group of women in headscarves standing inside the Oculus. I don’t think Nannini was trying to make a political statement here but it definitely evokes stronger political feelings than any other page in this book. As I was going through this book I thought, “How wonderful, a book about the subway that doesn’t include Midtown!” But I was wrong. The Shuttle between Grand Central Terminal and Times Square naturally begins and ends in Midtown. That said, this book is an excellent collection of images that shrinks the distance from the bottom of Brooklyn to the top of the Bronx to just two pages. It makes the edges of New York feel like the center of the world.
The first picture in the book is for the 1 train and it is taken from the perspective of the Staten Island Ferry looking at the Battery of NYC, a great way to open a book about the New York. I love the image for the 2 train at Flatbush Av, which just seems to be a yellow painted college cafeteria. The color pops and the lack of people is both eerie and inviting. The image used for the 6 train is the old ceiling at City Hall/Brooklyn Bridge and what I like about this image is that it calls to the yesteryear of the subway and is in direct contrast to the images at Hudson Yards and the Q train terminal at 96th St (both built in the 2010s). The Prospect Park Shuttle train has a beautiful image of a cyclist in silhouette underneath a park underpass, and the Rockaway Shuttle train features a photo of houses built on stilts at Broad Channel, an image one wouldn’t normally associate with the NYC subway. The last image to highlight is of a man standing outside the SIR, Staten Island’s subway line, smoking a cigarette and wearing a shirt that reads NYC. It brings together the thesis of the book that shouts, “This is all one city, end to end, top to bottom, and we’re all connected via this massive project our city has built and maintained for over 100 years.”