Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation, infrastructure, and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps that reveal and shape urban spaces (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles, GOOD, L.A. Review of Books, and beyond.
Tickets, patches, maps, and timetables: a new book presents 150 years of Helvetica-heavy subway artifacts.
Welcome back from summer vacation, New York City: the subway still sucks. Thursday morning brought commuters some of the worst delays and crowding in months. Blame track debris and signal problems—the leitmotif in the symphony of failure this system presently is.
Perhaps it’s a good time for appreciations of what the subway was, and could still be: a vast network of humans, moving the largest city in the U.S. with astonishing speed and efficiency. That is one way to read New York City Transit Authority: Objects ($49.00), the latest edition in the Standards Manual series, a kind of library for government design enthusiasts published by the designers Jesse Reed and Hamish Smyth.
In the latest volume, some 400 artifacts related to the New York City subway and bus system collected and documented by the New York photographer Brian Kelley are presented as as “intimate view” of the city’s transit history, “merging design and infrastructure over the past 150 years,” according to the introduction.
No special chronology or structure organizes the passes, tokens, maps, patches, timetables, and signs gathered here; the book, which represents just a small number of Kelley’s thoroughly Instagrammed mass of bus and subway paraphernalia, is more a tacit appreciation of the design of these objects, a utilitarian artfulness that tends to go unrecognized (with a couple of exceptions).
But for Kelley—and thoughtful readers—the sum of the objects is greater than the whole. I spoke with Kelley over the phone to learn more.
I understand you started this collection by scraping Metro cards off station floors. What compelled you? How did that expand?
My background is in still life photography, and the Metro card is something I used every day when I was commuting from Manhattan to Brooklyn. I just started noticing them scattered around the system. Some were messed up and damaged. Some were special editions—like you could get one that was green for Earth Day. My brother suggested I should look int all the different types. This was right around the time that Gap did a special Metro card. So I took notice to all the other kinds throughout the years and then I started collecting the MTA’s ads, too. I’d roam around the subway stations at all hours of the night, eventually exhausted that, and then turned to eBay to scoop up old cards.
Sounds like quite the rabbit hole.
It’s such a rabbit hole. Once you start digging, you meet other people who are collectors. They’ll have this or that you’re looking for, or offer you something else. Next thing you know you’re spending $100 on maps and tickets.
That was six years ago. It used to be about how many objects I could find, but now it’s become a selective thing. It’s about good graphic design.
Can you speak to the book’s presentation of these objects without any particular order?
Yeah. The book doesn’t attempt to show every item NYCTA has ever made. And I will never be able to collect them all. So when doing this book, Hamish and Jesse came up with the idea of celebrating objects for what they are. The thinking is that at any time you could pick it up and open to a page you’ve never seen before, and explore some new piece of history.
It’s easy for riders to forget that the system is ultimately run by other people. Some of my favorite items in the book are the patches, hats, and other wearables that represent various sub-groups and unions of MTA employees—objects that highlight the pride many of them take and display in their work.
Totally. On the Instagram, I definitely notice people commenting or giving shoutouts to folks who turn out to be train or bus operators. They really love their jobs, and and it’s cool to see that.
And sometimes, I’ll approach workers in person about cool stuff they’re wearing. They’re almost always down to talk to me, just to have someone recognize that. Every once in awhile a bus operator will have a patch I’ve never seen, like from some division deep in the Bronx. I’ll be like, “Damn, I’ve never seen that, not even on eBay!”
Has that changed your experience of riding the trains?
Before I got into this project, I was like most New Yorkers where I was like screw this, my train hasn’t come, why are we stuck in the middle of this tunnel. But after the last several years of full immersion of the world of New York City transit, I’ve really realized how complex it is. How many daily riders are on it now? Having to accommodate even Brooklyn’s growth in the past five years alone, it’s just outrageous. So when certain things happen with the train, give them a break. The operators are trying their hardest.
Are you still a daily commuter these days?
Fortunately, now I’m not. I usually bike everywhere, or skateboard, since I have a studio that’s four or five blocks from my apartment But when I started I had to train into city every day.
One of the great things about the Standards Manual series is that it sort of implicitly sings the praises of government and utilitarian designers whose work can be really invisible. Were you able to uncover the stories of any those specific individuals?
You have Massimo Vignelli who was glorified for designing the 1972 map. But other than that, not really. I would love to give credit to everyone in that book, but it would just take so much time and resources to dig that deeply. If I could afford it, I would. But for now, it’s more about the photography and preservation process.
Besides the ferroequinologists of the world, who do you see this project as being for?
There has been a lack of a presence for MTA objects in any kind of digital archive. There is one website that focuses only on cards. Even the Transit Museum doesn’t really have the collection digitized for the public. So I figured, why not do it myself? And now it’s a book.
Let’s imagine that New York City transit continues on its current, sad trajectory, and all that’s left 100 years from now is dust and this book. What do you think future generations would make of all this stuff?
This collection goes back and shows stuff from the last 150 years of transit. To have a book that encapsulates something like that is pretty special.
But more than that, I think the book stands as proof of existence. That’s the overall desire of the photographic process, beyond archiving stuff. Even if it’s a photo of someone walking down the street, on this street corner at this time of day, someone can look at that and say 100 years from now, “Damn! That’s what it was like.” The book stands as something similar for the subway.
Even if the subway sticks around, automation and new forms of ticketing technology do seem to point to a future with fewer material objects to collect.
That’s another part of why I did this book, that sense of loss of what’s tactile. These things won’t always be there, and this book can stand for history.