2014 Commencement Address
Thursday, May 22, 2014
Jacob Javits Center
10:30 am/3:00 pm
Congratulations, Class of 2014! This is your own glorious day. As I look around you—and into the distance of this great hall—I see the beaming faces of your families and friends and members of our faculty—all of whom share in this special moment, all of whom take pride in your accomplishments.
I want to welcome all of you: families, friends, our faculty and administrators, FIT and SUNY trustees and distinguished guests. Your presence here today adds to the joy of this moment for our graduates.
I share that joy. Each year as we approach this occasion, I get to witness an exhilarating parade of events that celebrate your achievements: award ceremonies, exhibitions and capstone presentations, our annual runway show. At each event, I meet students eager to move on—eager to make their mark in the world. However, when students leave us, making their mark often translates into dreams not just of success—but of fame. After all, success and fame are deeply—perhaps even perversely—intertwined in our celebrity-saturated culture. Everyone wants to be famous—everyone wants to be a brand! Thanks to the magic of our smart phones, we broadcast every minute, every iota of our lives to the world.
In fact, each of you came to FIT to explore and learn how to apply your talents so you could fulfill those dreams. And perhaps you do hope to become brands the bold-faced household names of tomorrow—the names on labels and logos and letterheads. But before you go chasing that limelight—and post one more picture on Instagram— I would like to share a story with you. It is one you may be familiar with—but one that is worth considering as you think about tomorrow—and how you choose to measure your success.
It is about a photographer named Vivian Maier who, a few years ago, became the latest overnight sensation. That she was no longer alive made her even more intriguing and that she had worked not just in obscurity, but pretty much in secret, made her story even more sensational.
Vivian Maier was, in fact, a nanny. She worked largely in Chicago for most of her adult life and according to those who knew her, she was a reserved, quiet, rather awkward woman—a woman with no known family or friends; a bit of an eccentric. She died in 2009 and even to those children she cared for and to their parents she remains, today, an enigma.
Oh, they knew that she took pictures. How could they not? She wore a Rolleiflex around her neck all the time and took photos of them incessantly. But she never shared them, and they never cared to ask. Indeed, she roamed the streets of Chicago, shooting obsessively, passionately—and printed almost none of the more than 100,000 negatives that were found after her death. Those negatives proved to be, as most critics agree, a treasure trove of images—brilliant examples of mid-20th century street photography: tender, revelatory, often haunting images of children, women, the elderly and indigents, self-portraits. Many critics place her in the highest ranks of American street photographers. Today, her works are on display in galleries throughout the world.
How she was discovered, how her negatives came to be printed—and the debate among curators about how she should be classified—is another story altogether which you can learn about on Google, or in a recently released documentary about her. Why she printed almost none of her work—why she never shared—we apparently will never know. This we do know: in today's world, where we share every single second of our most intimate lives—where we build our own websites to advertise our accomplishments, Vivian Meier seems hopelessly out of step. But hers is a story worthy of reflection, one that offers many possible life lessons.
The one that resonates most for me comes from the Emmy-award winning actor Bradley Whitford, a man who knows something about the ephemeral nature of fame. In addressing a commencement audience some years ago, he gave this piece of advice to the graduates:
Forget about fame. Life is too challenging for external rewards to sustain us, he said. Fall in love with the process and the results will follow . You've got to want to do whatever you want to do more than you want to be whatever you want to be.
I would say the same to you: You've got to want to design—to build a business, to shoot pictures—more than you want to be a designer, a CEO or a photographer. It is the verb—not the noun—that counts. As Mr. Whitford said, The joy is in the journey.
Now, I have no idea how much joy Vivian Meier took from her journey. But it seems to me that whatever her psychological make-up, she must have derived satisfaction—perhaps solace—through her photography. It is clear from her work that she had a rich inner life, great curiosity, and—as critics point out—a powerful confidence in her own vision. Maybe for her that was enough.
As you can see, fame, in my view, is a dubious goal at best. But I do not want to suggest that you should strive for obscurity squelch your ambitions or that you should not dream the big dream. However, as you go on your journey, I hope you will fall in love with the process work hard and aim high. Life is full of surprises. Most likely your journey will take you in unexpected directions, and as it does, rejoice. Let it test you, stretch you, galvanize your ingenuity, so that you grow and discover new strengths in yourselves.
Class of 2014 In your time here with us, you have been asked to pursue your studies, master new skills, complete many difficult, deadline oriented, exhausting projects—sometimes simultaneously—and you did. You did it lit by your own determination and creativity. With these precious gifts, you now have the power to build, to discover, to succeed.
Let your talents and ambitions serve the world. Let the rewards for a job well done be: a job well done. And when you finally take the measure your success, think of Vivian Meier and let the verb, not the noun, define you. I wish you much joy in your journey and I wish you all Godspeed.