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.

Changing Planet

Meet the Author
Cathy Newman began her career writing for the Miami News, before joining the staff of National Geographic Magazine where she was Editor at Large. In addition to dozens of articles for the magazine, she is the author of three books for National Geographic. Perfume: The Art and Science of Scent, Women Photographers at National Geographic, and Fashion. She is a regular contributor to Smithsonian Journeys.