Friday 23 March 2018

National Geographic mentor opened window to the world

Robert Gilka, who has died aged 96, was director of photography at National Geographic during the magazine's golden age, from 1963 to 1985. Long a staple of doctors' waiting rooms, the famous yellow-bordered magazine offered pre-internet readers around the world a window into journeys undertaken by the National Geographic Society's scientists, photographers and journalists, introducing them to ancient civilisations, palaeontology, wildlife and landscapes from the highest mountains to the deepest oceans and the surface of the Moon.

From 1905, when it published 11 pages of photographs of Lhasa, it earned a reputation for its stunning photojournalism, while its high-quality reproduction and exotic assignments attracted the world's best photographers.

The year before Gilka became director of photography, the magazine published its first all-colour issue; and during his time there almost every photo was in Kodachrome – a film known for its deep, saturated colours. When Kodak discontinued the film in 2011 it gave the last roll to Steve McCurry, the photographer responsible for the 1984 cover portrait of the 'Afghan Girl', the most famous cover in the magazine's history, which appeared the year before Gilka's retirement.

Though most photographers who worked for National Geographic had already established their reputations, Gilka left them in little doubt that, as far as he was concerned, they were callow "new kids" who had a lot to learn. On his office door a sign read "Wipe knees before entering", and next to his desk was a confessional kneeling stool.

The photographer David Allen Harvey recalled how, following his first assignment with the magazine, he received a letter from Gilka which ran: "Dear David, You are young and strong. That is good, for what I have to tell you will make you feel sick and old." Photographer Gail Mooney described Gilka as "one of the most intimidating people I had ever met".

The acclaimed underwater photographer David Doubilet recalled taking some of his photographs to Gilka in 1968. "He looked through my sweaty pictures and said with a voice as dark as a monsoon: 'There's nothing new here.' He handed my pictures back. I took them in boneless, meatless fingers, and promptly dropped them. Gathering them as I left, I literally crawled from his office."

Yet, although Doubilet compared projection sessions to "undergoing surgery in public without anaesthetics", Gilka became his mentor: "Occasionally he appeared in my dreams like the fearsome face of the Wizard of Oz, (but) he had real understanding for each photograph. He pushed me, prodded me, asking the classic journalist's questions with a force that changed the way I took pictures". Doubilet broke through with dramatic images of Red Sea garden eels a year or two later and went on to shoot more than 60 stories for the magazine.

Gilka may have been sparing in his praise, but he was responsible for developing the careers of dozens of the world's leading photographers, who became known as 'Gilka's Gorillas'. He taught them, when photographing in colour, to think in black and white – and never to succumb to the temptation to retouch a photograph, any excuse for which he compared to "limited nuclear warfare. There ain't none."

Despite his high standards, he attempted to ensure that his photographers maintained some kind of family life, despite months spent in the field, flying them home for special occasions. Even so, divorce rates among the magazine's photographers, were, according to the magazine's website, as high as 70pc. Yet his protégés loved him for his willingness to defend such expense account items as "Cessna 185 aircraft" or "mouse for rattlesnake, house for mouse, cheese for mouse".

Robert Emanuel Gilka was born on July 12, 1916, near Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and studied journalism at Marquette University. After graduating in 1939 he worked as a general reporter, sports editor and photographer on a local Ohio newspaper. After World War II, in which he served as an X-ray technician in the Army Medical Corps, rising to the rank of captain, he worked as a copy editor and sports writer for the Milwaukee Journal, becoming head of its picture desk in 1952.

Gilka joined the staff of National Geographic on September 18, 1958, as a picture editor. After his retirement in 1985 he served as a professor of photojournalism at Syracuse University until 1992.

He married, in 1941, Janet Andrews Bailey, who died in 2004. He is survived by their two sons and two daughters.

Irish Independent

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