I just learned that Bob Gilka, legendary Director of Photography at the National Geographic for over 20 years passed away yesterday. He was 96 years old. Bob was the “real deal” and he will be missed by many, but his legacy lives on in all the photographers careers that he shaped and mentored. I am reposting a blog that I wrote about Bob on December 1, 2009. Rest in peace Mr. Gilka.
Back in the eighties when I was starting out, every six months or so I made the pilgrimage to Washington DC to see Bob Gilka, The Director of Photography at the National Geographic Magazine. He was the guy who decided if you would shoot for the magazine. He was accessible, answered his own phone and made appointments to look at work. How times have changed.
Gilka was a man of few words and because of that seeing him was always a bit intimidating. If all you had were images to show – and nothing to say, you’d pretty much be in and out of his office in the amount of time it took to click through your slides. Knowing this, I did my homework prior to the appointment. I’d come up with about 10 query ideas, research back issues of the magazine to make sure they hadn’t been done before and have at least one idea written up in a story proposal.
I’ll never forget the first time I went to Gilka’s office. His secretary met me in the lobby, and led me to a small area just outside his office. There on his door was a doormat –with words that read “Wipe Your Knees Before Entering”. Talk about feeling intimidated – as if it wasn’t intimidating enough just to be meeting with the Director of Photography at the National Geographic.
So every six months or so I would show my images and pitch my ideas. This went on for about two years. Each time I went I would almost test myself to see how long I could stay in his office. I would do my best to sell my story pitches that I felt the strongest about and he would reply – “done it –doing it – or – don’t want to do it”. This coupled with a few words of encouragement in regards to some of my photographs would pretty much be it as far as feedback.
Then one day he kept me waiting. He had been detained in a meeting. I had scheduled a pretty tight day to maximize my trip to Washington – so the delay had thrown a wrench into me keeping my other appointments that I had scheduled. When Gilka did show up and apologized, I was already feeling quite anxious and showed it. I told him that I didn’t have much time because I had to be across town at the Smithsonian in 20 minutes. He picked up the phone, called Declan Haun, the picture editor I was headed to see at Smithsonian Magazine and explained that Gail Mooney was running late due to his tardiness. Then he proceeded to look at my pictures and hear me out.
When I did get to the Smithsonian, it was amusing to see how curious Declan Haun was to find out who this Gail Mooney was that got Bob Gilka to call ahead for her. The very next month, I got a call from Bob Gilka offering me my first assignment. Guess I just needed to show my real self. I had sufficiently shown my interest and determination in wanting to shoot for them. And I had demonstrated my photographic ability through my images. But it was when I showed my true spirit that he knew that I could shoot for them. I just had to get over my fright.