Before They Were Famous

Beautiful pictures and cogent comments from a publication not noted for being as hypnotized by celebrities as, well, as so many TV networks and streaming channels, and – yeppers – websites think the rest of us are…The New York Times.

First Inklings of Fame
by Veronica Chambers and Jennifer Harlan

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….

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