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Emperor of the Image: Remembering National Geographic’s Robert Gilka

He didn’t speak, he growled in a low-level rumble like the sound of distant thunder or the scrape of boots over gravel. For many, his was the voice of God itself, a standing reinforced by the needlepoint panel that hung above his office door. “Wipe your knees before entering,” it said.

Despite the prie-dieu, a kneeling bench, at the side of his desk (a photographer’s not entirely facetious gift), Robert Emanuel Gilka, who died in hospice in Arlington, Virginia, on Tuesday at the age of 96, was anything but lordly. He was modest, utterly free of ego, with a single-minded focus on the art of photography and power of the image. He knew exactly who he was, as did the photographers who worked for him over the course of a 27-year-long career as director of photography at National Geographic magazine, where he set the standard for its visual excellence forever after.

He was adored and feared by his photographers (and they were his—heart and soul). The fear was fear of failure and of disappointing the man they worshipped; fear of coming up short or not meeting the impossibly high standard of excellence he set. Which was more frightening, underwater photographer David Doubilet was once asked, a great white shark or Bob Gilka? “Gilka,” Doubilet unhesitatingly replied. “If you didn’t come back with the goods.”

He wasn’t a manager. He was a leader. He didn’t form opinions by talking them out, remembers Susan Welchman, who he helped hire as a picture editor in 1979. “He knew what he thought. The opinion was in his head already.”

He also knew how to listen. He had the backs of his photographers, and everyone on his staff besides. “Don’t you ever upbraid one of my staff again,” he barked at an Editor in Chief who had reduced a young woman, in what was then called the secretarial pool, to tears.

He was Mr. Gilka, not Bob or Robert, at least not until he retired on July 1, 1985. In an era before casual Friday, he was a coat and tie man. He wore a thin knit tie, a tattersall shirt, and a jacket that was quickly shed at his desk. His sleeves would be rolled up like the newspaperman he had been in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Zanesville, Ohio.

The hair, the color of Vermont granite in later years, was a buzz cut that spoke to his previous experience as an Army Captain in World War II. He’d volunteered even before Pearl Harbor, and was inducted on March 14, 1941, in Camp Lee, Virginia, 14 days after his marriage to Janet Bailey, a reporter he’d met on the Zanesville Signal. What do you want to do? they’d asked him when sorting through the new enlistees. “Photography,” he replied. He was promptly trained as an x-ray technician.

Hear Gilka discuss the evolution of photography at National Geographic magazine.

Gilka started at the magazine on September 18, 1958—reluctantly. He came for an interview, but thought the Geographic overstuffed with superiors who would likely interfere in his domain. Offered a job, he declined, and returned to the Milwaukee Journal, where he ran the picture desk with a free hand. “They kept pressing and I finally gave up,” he said years later. “I can stay here and get rich at the Journal,” he told his wife. “Or I can go to National Geographic and have a lot of fun on a worldwide basis and wind up poor.”

Once there, he pinpointed talent with the instincts of a heat-seeking missile. His photography interns would become the best of the best: Emory Kristof was the first, William Albert Allard the second, and—among others—Sam Abell, Peter Essick, Louis Psihoyos, and Sarah Leen, who would succeed him 28 years after his retirement as the magazine’s first woman director of photography. In the setting of the Old Boy’s Club that was the Geographic, he hired and put the first woman photographer on staff, Jodi Cobb, and made another woman, Susan Smith, his deputy. He also hired as a photographer the man who would become the current Editor in Chief of the magazine, Chris Johns. “He made photographers accountable as journalists,” says Johns. “There was no compromise. Period.”

Hear Gilka discuss diversity on the National Geographic photography staff.

Through his hires, he changed the tone and meaning of photography in the magazine. He arrived at the time of the “red shirt school of photography”—the practice of choosing a subject wearing a red shirt to give a spot of color in the frame. “We got over that in a hurry,” Gilka told an interviewer.

“Gilka wasn’t looking for photographers,” says Cary Wolinsky, who came to the magazine from the Boston Globe. “He was looking for storytellers, for people who could survive the lifestyle he knew about, but that a new, young photographer couldn’t yet fathom.”

That lifestyle was a marriage killer. The months spent in the field were known to strain and break family bonds. Gilka, deeply committed to his family, hated to see that happen. “He made sure that I was home for every important occasion I wanted to be,” said Bruce Dale, who came to the magazine in 1964.

“Let me ask you one thing,” he said to Dale once. “What’s more important—the job or your family?”

“My family,” Dale replied without blinking.

“Good,” he said.

More than anything, he wanted his photographers to have a life, yet knew the consuming commitment the work required. The divorce rate was perhaps as high as 70 percent in those years. He understood they’d made a choice, a costly choice, and there was, perhaps, a piece of him that felt guilty and hurt.

He was the Saint Peter of portfolio assessors—an anxiety-filled hell for the young photographer-supplicant. He’d go through a portfolio silently, then say what needed to be said. “Do you intend to make your living doing this?” was a common soul-sinker. He was blunt. It was the truth and nothing but.

To those who made the grade, he was mentor coach, confessor and father figure. He wasn’t just career-changing, he was soul-changing. Tough. Demanding. But, says his eldest daughter Greer, “Mush inside.”

He led by example, and every director of photography afterward has had to live up to his standards, including the most recent director—the intern he hired, Sarah Leen. “He set the bar for excellence and integrity we are all trying to carry on,” she says. “He was my North Star. A moral compass. I still hear his voice in my head.”

The story—a parable, perhaps—often told at magazine headquarters, bears retelling again and again.

In 1968, Gilka gave a test assignment to a young University of Missouri grad student named David Alan Harvey.

Harvey shot the story, sent the film in, and waited. One day a letter came:

Dear David,

You are young and strong. That is good. For what I must tell you will make you feel sick and old.

The rest of the letter made it clear Harvey had failed.

“Of course I was hurt,” Harvey recalled. “But I realized I did not like those pictures any more than he did. I was shooting what I thought were National Geographic pictures. I bent. After that, I never bent. I worked in my own style—always. Ten years later, I was Magazine Photographer of Year for my work and Gilka put me on staff.”

The lesson about being true to one’s self was a lesson Robert Gilka could teach because he knew in every cell in his body how to be true to himself. And how to be true to others.

Comments

  1. Dipanjan Mitra
    India
    October 20, 4:25 am

    I keep reading this article. Since last year, since the article was published, i believe i have read it thousand times. I do not know, but it somehow boosts me up every time i read it. Thanks for sharing Nat Geo.

  2. Michael Greenlar
    Syracuse, New York 13208
    April 10, 3:02 pm

    I had the great opportunity to audit his picture editing class at the Newhouse School at Syracuse University. I regret I never had the chance to work for him but feel so fortunate to have learned from him in class and later as a friend. I feel like he gave me something special, something that I will carry forever. Thank you Bob.

  3. TOM NEBBIA
    MILLS RIVER, N.C.
    December 3, 2013, 11:09 am

    ITS ALL PERFECTLY TRUE, EXCEPT HIS GROWL WAS REALLY MEANT TO BE A CONSTRUCTIVE LEAP INTO THAT DEEP DARK MYSTERIOUS BOWLS OF PHOTOGRAPHIC EXCELLENCE, WHICH KEPT ALL OF US STAFF SHUTTER-BUGS ON HIS/HERS TOES, SOoo HALLEJULIA AND AMEN FOR BOB GILKA. see u in that photographic pie in the sky..

  4. Anthony Peritore
    Virginia and Wash DC
    September 16, 2013, 3:33 pm

    Yes Mr. Gilka you are missed in more ways than you can ever imagine in today’s world .I was hired by Mr Gilka in 1979 as a camera repairman and soon learned who this man really was.
    God no, but close enough.He knew how to get it done in the real world of film and photo works that was never tiring.After many years of covering space shuttle launch’s I remember him saying to Jon Schneeberger what another launch,a launch is a launch but he went along and so we went on, and I will miss his snap and raw niceness that is not be seen here ever again.
    My knees are dirty thanks to you Mr Gilka.
    you gave us all purpose in many ways, Gods speed in the next life .

  5. Penny Schmitt
    Wilmington, NC
    July 1, 2013, 3:37 pm

    I knew Bob Gilka and his wife Jan as a fellow parishioner at St. Andrews Episcopal Church in Arlington, Virginia. At the time, I knew Bob had been ‘at the Geographic’ but at the time had no idea of the mark he had set on the photographic excellence that is its hallmark. I just knew Janet as a witty and delightful lady who appreciated my taste in hats and always was cheerfully ready to be amused, and Bob as a pleasant and quiet man of few words, many deeds, and good common sense about parish affairs. He was oftenest in evidence supervising a Christmas Tree sale or mowing the grass on the parish lawn and generally seeing to it that our church grounds looked great. Thus in smaller and less consequential things, I can say he was willing to be a force for good in small ways as well as great ones. I will remember him fondly.

  6. Bill Luster
    Louisville, KY
    June 30, 2013, 6:12 pm

    I had met Mr. Gilka at the Missouri Photo Workshop. I had just started working at The Courier-Journal six months earlier. I ended up on Mr. Gilka’s team at the workshop. He worked me hard all week, and I appreciated it very much. Two years later he offered me an assignment for the Geographic. I did poorly and was crushed having disappointing him. However, throughout my career, he was always there for me. Both Mr. Gilka and his devoted wife Jan became friends. I am honored that I knew both of them. I am saddened by his passing.

  7. Charlene Valeri
    Maryland
    June 30, 2013, 11:41 am

    Cathy has captured the essence that was Gilka. I worked for Mr. Gilka and was one of the secretaries (not derogatory at the time) known as CHARPATA, who needlepointed his well-known sign to his office. We each worked for 20+ photographers and always for Mr. Gilka. He was our hero, our boss and our friend. We miss him.

  8. James P. Blair
    Middlebury VT
    June 29, 2013, 5:45 pm

    I was hired by Bob’s predecessor Jim Godbold and worked for Bob as a staff photographer alongside Bruce Dale, Dean Conger and Joe Shershall for 27 years. We called those years “the golden years” because we all knew we were working for a remarkable boss. He challenged each one of us to simply do our best when we in the field and he trusted us to be as honest to the subject as possible. Bob is and will always be a guide point as I continue to photograph and more than that would not be important to him. But, I sure will miss him.

  9. Brenda Coakes, nee Whitehouse
    Bournemouth, England
    June 28, 2013, 11:23 am

    I’m sad to hear of Bob Gilka’s death. He was a fine man who was very good to me during the short time I worked as a secretary in the Photography department and wrote me an excellent reference when I had to leave for health reasons. I, like many others, loved and respected him. He will be missed. May he rest in peace.

  10. Brenda Coakes, nee Whitehouse
    Bournemouth, England
    June 28, 2013, 11:18 am

    I was lucky enough to work as a secretary to the photographers many years ago and will never forget Mr. Gilka returning a letter I had written, several words heavily underscored. I said that the spellings were as written in the Oxford English dictionary. “God damn your Oxford dictionary, get me a Websters!”
    I, like many others, loved Bob Gilka and remained in touch with him until the last few years. He and Jan were so good to me and, when they were in England, visited my parents.
    He will be missed; may he rest in peace.

  11. Linda Bartlett
    Washington DC
    June 28, 2013, 5:56 am

    Bob Gilka was a very special human being, both tough and kind. He hired me, in the summer of 1966, a young woman free-lance photographer from NYC, and sent me on a 10 month trip sailing around Africa on a 3-masted sailing ship, a quite unbelievable first assignment. Seven months later the ship caught fire and sank off the coast of Africa. The story wasn’t published, but Bob continued to hire me for numerous stories over some years.

  12. Ken Chilton
    Dunedin. New Zealand
    June 28, 2013, 3:20 am

    I had the good fortune as a guide on the Milford Track, New Zealand, in 1977 to guide a party that included Bob and Janet Gilka. The National Geographic published an article on the track in January 1978 and Bob was taking the photographs. This resulted in a 36 year friendship where our families have visited and kept in touch, something that I have cherished along with my family. Wonderful memories we will all treasure.

  13. Alex Allan
    Baguio City, Philippines
    June 27, 2013, 5:23 pm

    I’ve been ‘reading’ National Geographic since I was an elementary school kid in the 1950s and I still buy old issues in my retirement age. I didn’t know Mr. Gilka was the director of photography so I wouldn’t say he was a legend for us NG readers in the Philippines because we had not read about him. But we all know National Geographic is pictures and after reading this article by Cathy Newman, learning that he had a heart for people and an eye and a mind for photographs, finding out he was the man behind National Geographic pictures I have never tired of looking at, makes me realize I have known him all along. I agree — Mr. Gilka is a legend.

  14. Lilian Davidson
    Falls Church, VA
    June 27, 2013, 2:49 pm

    Cathy Newman has caught the essence of Bob Gilka’s character in the most wonderful way. Bob was my boss (my favorite boss) for 21 years, and he and Janet were my friends for over 40 years. I never stopped learning from both of them – like how to eat Chesapeake Bay crabs, and many other amazing things. They loved life, and inspired us all to do the same. I shall always be grateful.

  15. Fred W. Fries Marine Surveyors and Appraisers
    Vancouver, Washington
    June 27, 2013, 1:56 pm

    It is encouraging to know that this kind of thinking is still encouraged and written about in today’s world, the kind of thing that I grew up learning from my family during the 40’s and 50’s. I can only wish that more younger people were taught these kind of virtues today, they really don’t ever go out of style.

  16. Jeff Gilka
    LaFayette, New York
    June 27, 2013, 7:15 am

    To use one of Dad’s expressions, “thanks much” to what was long part of my extended family for this touching appreciation.

    Lest those from whom I learned so much think they are alone: when I was weighing photojournalism against grad school, Dad told me, “You could make a decent living at this, but you’re a DAMN FINE writer”. In a rare moment of clarity, I took his implied advice. Many years later, while we were in Maine and I was indulging my emerging fascination with herons using my first digital camera (a Lumix FZ-7 that Brian Lanker and Bruce Dale had recommended), Dad said, in an equally matter of fact delivery, “You should think about peddling some of this stuff.” So while there was always candor, there was always love and encouragement, from both Dad and Mom. It was a full life, well lived, but as Mom wrote briefly and simply long ago in a condolence note:
    “We are deprived.”