It is graduation season, and luminaries like Tina Fey, Oprah, Tom Hanks and Barack Obama are giving advice to graduates about starting their next chapter.
Of course, this year, in the midst of the pandemic, the gatherings of family and friends must happen online. Instead of hugging classmates and celebrating years of hard work with teachers and mentors, the class of 2020 is marking this milestone with socially distant Zoom parties and virtual speeches. But even in this uncertain moment, the messages — of hope, possibility, using the gifts you’ve been given — remain timeless.
About two years ago, the archival storytelling team at The Times began sifting through some of the millions of photographs — old-school prints, in paper folders — in our archives, a place we call “the morgue.” We’ve uncovered a lot of treasures while exploring the paper’s historical record, both visual and textual, but one kind of find has always stood out to us — the first, or nearly first, time that someone who became famous really caught the paper’s eye. They’re just starting to take steps down the path that will lead them to renown.
There is Mr. Obama, at age 28, when he becomes the first black president of the Harvard Law Review. There is Meryl Streep, age 27, who has starred in no fewer than six stage productions in her first year in New York. There is Eddie Murphy, at 19, fresh out of high school and a new cast member on “Saturday Night Live.”
Sometimes our photographers captured these figures before they took that leap to stardom. Look at Patti Smith, in her blazer, crisp white shirt and a tie. It’s months before the release of her debut album, “Horses.” She is at a rally, not onstage. But in a crowd of people, she stands out like the star she will become. She’s already very much Patti Smith.
You flip through these photographs and see authenticity and passion. They are more than portraits of people who are on the verge of becoming very successful and very famous. There’s a pureness to these images. It feels like you are looking at people who are doing what they love, before the world was watching, and discovering who they are. This is a moment when things began to shift. They are in the process of becoming.
Some of these stories feel eerily prescient today. A 1991 article about the painter Glenn Ligon tells us that the artist is 31, with a coveted place in the Whitney Biennial and a group show at a gallery in TriBeCa. The headline reads, “‘Lack of Location Is My Location.’” It is a phrase that might resonate with all the young people who had to leave school unexpectedly or are quarantining back home.
Shifts in one’s geography offer the opportunity to shift one’s perspective as well. As Ligon told the art critic Roberta Smith: “I grew up living in a housing project in the South Bronx and attending a private school on the West Side. Lack of location is my location. I’m always shifting opinions and changing my mind.”
We hope that these images and stories will be a reminder to our readers, whether or not they are part of the class of 2020, that there is a kind of magic that comes at the beginning of a journey. And while this particular moment is unlike any that most of us have experienced in our lifetimes, obstacles, hurdles and uncertainty are part of everyone’s story.
When Ruth Bader Ginsburg was hired as a professor at Columbia University in 1972, the headline read “Columbia Scores a Prize in the Quest for Women Professors.” What may have seemed at the time like a crowning achievement was in fact just one step in her long climb to even greater heights. And as anyone who knows the justice’s story can attest, that climb was not always a smooth one. Although Ginsburg graduated tied for first in her class, she told The Times, she couldn’t get a job at a single law firm.
“At first, when the rejection notices started coming in, she thought something might be wrong with her, but then, she said, ‘when I got so many rejections, I thought it couldn’t be they had no use for me — it had to be something else,’” the paper reported. May this be a comfort to those who will go job hunting in the months and years ahead.
It is hard to quantify the role of good fortune in the lives of the people featured here. But they show that sometimes the breaks do come. Among the teeming cast of the 1956 film “The King and I,” Rita Moreno stood out to the Times critic Bosley Crowther, who noted that she played her small role with grace and “a haunting poignance.” Just six years later, she would win an Academy Award for her role in “West Side Story” — no longer part of the crowd but a bona fide star.
And their stories also remind us that those breaks don’t just magically happen: Yes, there is a some kismet involved, but opportunities can also require work and sacrifice to bring them into being. While Ms. Streep marveled that she had been “shot with luck” since moving to the city, she also made the point of noting that, despite her success, she still owed the Yale School of Drama thousands of dollars.
The class of 2020 indeed has no idea what their future holds — and in this, they are not alone. “Every one of us is now being called to graduate, to step toward something, even though we don’t know what,” Oprah Winfrey told graduates in a virtual commencement ceremony on Facebook this month. The people in these photographs show us that if you move forward with confidence and conviction, greatness — whatever your version of that is — can follow.
Read our original coverage of Patti Smith, Maya Lin, David Byrne, Glenn Ligon, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Rita Moreno, Eddie Murphy, Meryl Streep, Sandra Cisneros, Nathan Lane, Spike Lee, Julie Andrews, Madhur Jaffrey, Barack Obama, Yayoi Kusama, Clint Eastwood, Quincy Jones and Isabel Allende.