Collect Call: the NYCTA Project

Brian Kelley's amazing archive of New York City Transit Authority memorabilia provides a unique look at the city's past.

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Brian Kelley in his Brooklyn studio.
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Sharpen your pencils, transport-fact fans. According to a 2015 report, an average of just over 8.75 million people use the Metropolitan Transportation Authority every weekday. While 85 percent of the nation's workforce use a car to get to work, four of every five rush-hour commuters to New York City use public transportation. On average, 2.73 billion trips are undertaken on public transport by New Yorkers every year, that's one in three users of mass transport in the United States. But whereas almost every single one of those riders is using the network as a means to an end, for photographer Brian Kelley it's a fascination.

Kelley's Metrocard collection.
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Kelley's interest in the transportation system began with a late-night project photographing sleeping subway workers. His collection began with discarded Metrocards that he would make photographed grids with. After his brother suggested that he delve deeper into the transportation system's history, Kelley souvenir heap has grown into a massive collection of artifacts from the MTA as a whole. Now, it encompasses pieces from the subway system (469 stations!), buses, the Long Island Rail Road, and the commuter railways spider-webbing out of the city. Kelley has dubbed the collection, which he showcases via Tumblr and Instagram, the NYCTA Project, and it has been growing steadily for the past five years, with no signs of slowing down.

A bus map from the NYCTA Project.
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The project features not only Metrocards, but tokens, tickets, coloring books, matchbooks, and virtually any other thing that can be branded. He spends a considerable amount of his personal income (Kelley is a professional photographer whose portfolio spans fashion, skateboarding, and street culture) gathering the artifacts, most of which he finds on eBay. "There is no end goal," he says, laughing, "and there is no instant gratification from this project. At this point, it's just spending money."

Imagine the shipping costs!

Kelley may be humble about it, but we find the project a bit more worthwhile than your average hobbyist's hoard. Kelley's Tumblr is decorated with tokens from 1928, subway timetables from 1977, and magazines published for straphangers dating all the way back to 1918. With each item, Kelley posts an anecdote both to contextualize the piece and provide a little dose of history for his readers. "I can look at stuff from any point in the history of the New York subway system and get a sense of the era's art and culture," says Kelley. He's right; on Metrocards alone can be found evidence of all manner of major New York City events—the New York Rangers' 1994 Stanley Cup victory, the opening of the observatory at One World Trade Center, the 60th Anniversary of JFK International Airport. All there.

The collection is comprised of all kinds of objects, including this vintage lantern.

Kelley admits that part of the reason he maintains the NYCTA Project is to satisfy his personal obsession, but filling a historical void is definitely an added perk. While similar items can certainly be found at an institution like the New York Transit Museum, Kelley's collection is digital, succinctly packaged, and, best of all: free. Now consisting of over 1,200 pieces, the NYCTA Project is threatening to overtake his Brooklyn studio space, but he recognizes the ever-growing archive of NYC ephemera for the labor of love it is. "It's not like a photo I shoot that's online for a week, then goes dead. It's potentially a life project—it will keep growing."

It's hard work, but Kelley is all smiles.

Keep up with the NYCTA Project at thenyctaproject.com, and through @the_nycta_project on Instagram.

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