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New York’s transit history gets the beautiful visual archive it deserves

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Photographer Brian Kelley’s collection of subway ephemera is cataloged in a new coffee table book

1972 NYCTA subway guide.
Photos by Brian Kelley

Brian Kelley didn’t intend to become one of those people with a robust collection of New York City subway trinkets. Kelley, a Brooklyn-based photographer, began his foray into cataloging the random bits and bobs of the transit system a few years ago on a lark. He was taking pictures of MetroCards as practice for his day job as a product photographer, and that sparked his curiosity about the other bits of subway history.

Eventually, Kelley says, he “found out about the eBay rabbit hole, how much stuff is out there,” and got hooked. Over the past six years, he’s amassed a 2,000-item strong collection of transit souvenirs, from tokens and special-issue MetroCards to NYCTA uniforms and hard-to-find original maps.

In 2014, Kelley’s desire to document his finds turned into an Instagram account, The NYCTA Project. (His first post was of one of the original MetroCards, released in January 1994.) And soon, that passion project will become a coffee-table book called Objects with the help of a very apt partner: Standards Manual, the imprint that gained renown for its reprints of standards manuals from NASA and, of course, the NYCTA.

Jesse Reed and Hamish Smyth, the brains behind the operation, had worked with Kelley previously, when he photographed their reprint of the NYCTA manual for the duo’s website. But the idea for turning Kelley’s collection into a book didn’t happen until earlier this year. “We started in April,” Smyth says. “We showed some friends of ours in the book industry and they really loved the idea. Then we really quickly said to Brian, ‘Let's do this,’ and by June, or July I think we were printing.”

In a move that will either frustrate or delight amateur subway historians, the book isn’t organized in chronological order, or even by categories of items. Instead, Reed explains, the book is laid out arbitrarily in order to foster a sense of discovery among readers.

And so items that you wouldn’t necessarily think should be paired (i.e., a NYCTA maintenance worker’s cap from 1993 and a Staten Island Railway ticket) are laid out on one spread, making the experience of flipping through the book slightly more random. But that’s the idea; the focus isn’t on the chronology or timeline of these items, but rather—in keeping with the title of the book—the objects themselves. “It's kind of like going through someone’s junk drawer and then finding this treasure trove of really amazing items,” says Reed.

Plus, as Kelley notes, “The collection itself isn't complete, and I don't think it's really possible to have a complete collection of every single thing that the Transit Authority's ever put out.”

Of Kelly’s vast collection, only about 350 items made it into the book. “We really wanted to give it a wide variety that shows not just current or not just old stuff, but a good mix of everything from the early 1800s up until now,” he explains. And indeed, some of the truly vintage objects that Kelley has found, including a circa-1885 ticket for a Brooklyn Bridge trolley, and a 1914 ticket for a New York Railway Company streetcar that ran along 34th Street, are included.

Sometimes, those items are juxtaposed with something more recent; a bus pass for elementary school children from 1954 is placed on a spread with a Supreme-branded MetroCard, which was just issued earlier this year—and quickly became a must-have item for both subway nerds and sneakerheads.

But despite the lack of exposition about the items—there’s an index that identifies them, but not much beyond that—the book is, taken as a whole, an archive of New York’s transit history. Seeing the evolution of fare collecting, for example, from intricately-designed paper tickets to the branded MetroCards of today, gives you a greater appreciation of how these things have evolved over time.

And of course, there’s plenty for design nerds—and subway nerds—to geek out over, including original 1972 Vignelli maps and an oh-so-groovy travel guide produced by the MTA in the year of the bicentennial.

While the design aspect interested Reed and Smyth (who run their own design practice called Order), they were more intrigued by the fact that Kelley’s project is about the subway itself. “[The subway is] a global icon, and I think there's something very attractive about it in general,” Reed explains. “The people who come and ride the subway … it's almost like the conquered the New York City subway system and it's really cool to be a part of that.”

Now that the book is out, Kelley doesn’t plan on stopping collecting anytime soon. He’s still looking for subway items—his dream is to snag an original copy of the 1970s Standards Manual, which are quite rare—and has also begun displaying some of his other collections (including National Parks Service pamphlets and Smokey the Bear merchandise) on a new website, Modern Archivist.

“I really got into the idea of creating these archives of things, because you never see everything at once,” Kelley explains. “People only ever see what is happening right then and there, and I think these archive projects give people this insight to see how extensive and how much history there is behind a specific thing.”

Objects will be released on October 16; it’s available for pre-order through Standards Manual.