In this article for The Lantern, we take a look at one of our current exhibitions, City of Ambition: Photography from the Collection, curated by Diana Tuite and Anna Fan. Tara Kohn, Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at Bowdoin College, discusses the centerpiece of the exhibition—Alfred Stieglitz’s City of Ambition—and its relationship to the other photographs in this exhibition.
The exhibition City of Ambition: Photography from the Collection at the Colby College Museum of Art takes its title from a photograph that Alfred Stieglitz shot in 1910, during his commute back to New York City from his home state of New Jersey (figure 1). Framing New York from a distance, over a waterway and through the billowing smoke that rises from steam vessels and factories, City of Ambition reveals his philosophical approach to lens-based artistic practice. The mists that hang over the geometric grids of the skyscrapers at the center of the image suggest the expressive possibilities of the camera to transform the frenetic, industrial realm into an emblem of beauty. Stieglitz first circulated this image in the October 1911 issue of his carefully curated journal Camera Work, “hanging” it among other images and texts in bound pages in a way that evokes the same types of spatial and conceptual relationships that curators build up when they install works of art along the walls of a gallery. This essay considers the layers of meaning that City of Ambition takes on in these two contexts, considering it first as it appears in Camera Work and then in conversation with other works selected for the exhibition at Colby College.
Stieglitz printed City of Ambition in the delicate pages of an issue of his journal, which combined his own images with the poetic writings of some of the most significant critics in his circle. The photograph surfaces in the magazine as part of a series of shots that frame the skyline of the city from across a body of water. The distance from the shoreline—the suspense of arrival—that Stieglitz sustains in these photographs collapses in Old and New New York, the final image of the sequence he arranged in the opening pages of the issue. This photograph depicts the skeletal structure of a skyscraper rising above the low rooftops of the Victorian buildings that line the street. An impression of the city emerges in the collection that, in many ways, foreshadows the textual image created in the essay that Stieglitz selected for the final pages of the issue: the photographer Alvin Langdon Coburn’s “A Relation of Time to Art.” “To me,” Coburn observes, describing the final phases of his voyage back to the United States after living, for two years, in the quiet suburbs of London,
New York is a vision that rises out of the sea as I come up the Harbor on my Atlantic liner, and which glimmers for a while in the sun for the first of my stay amidst its pinnacles, but which vanishes, but for fragmentary glimpses, as I become one of the grey creatures that crawl about like ants at the bottom of its gloomy caverns. 
For Coburn, as for Stieglitz—a second-generation German Jewish immigrant who spent his student years in his ancestral homeland—the city of New York surfaces, symbolically, as a point of reentry, a place where the exhilaration and anticipation disintegrate, in Coburn’s words, into a “sudden . . . plung[e] into the rush and turmoil.” In relationship to Coburn’s text, City of Ambition transforms New York into a symbolic channel that marked, for Stieglitz, a transatlantic existence: a conduit between cultures, a place where he arrived.
City of Ambition: Photography from the Collection draws these themes out in a different way by positioning Stieglitz’s image as a central piece in a broader discussion of urban space. On the opposite wall of the gallery hangs Berenice Abbott’s Hoboken Ferry Terminal, Barclay Street, an image that depicts a site that was a point of origin for the Hoboken-born Stieglitz as he framed New York in the lens of his camera on his way back from a nearby town in New Jersey (figure 2). Abbott, snapping her shot about fifteen years after Stieglitz snapped City of Ambition, explores the shorelines of New Jersey as another boundary between places; the upper edge of the picture plane is punctuated by the smoke rising up and the boats rolling out. Her image is centered around parallel lines and intersecting, geometric structures that signal Stieglitz’s continuing artistic influence, but her view is also, in another sense, disorienting. The ferry terminal, captured through her lens from above, seems to slide out from under us, revealing her interest in drawing out strangeness within the familiar.
Another image included in the exhibit comes from Nikki S. Lee’s 1999 The Seniors Project, a photograph by a Korean-born artist that explores the fluid, performative, and shifting nature of identity (figure 3). She develops aspects of her Projects series by spending time remolding herself according to the contours of various social groups, learning to shift her mannerisms, gestures, and appearance so that she almost—but never quite—transcends the boundaries of her own ancestry. Even as she merges into other subcultures, she remains, always, visible and recognizable as herself. In this particular image from the series, markers of her youth fade away, and she stands in the photograph at an intersection of city streets as an elderly woman. Although The Seniors Project is very different from The City of Ambition, Lee is, in some ways, grappling with the same complex questions that emerge in Stieglitz’s work. In the space between these two images in the context of the exhibition, questions surface about what it means to remain rooted both here and elsewhere—what it means to transform and remake ourselves in relationship to a new place.
 Alvin Langdon Coburn, A Relation of Time to Art, Camera Work 36 (1911): 72.