From the Society's in-house intranet newsletter:
'The Halls and Offices of NG are Buzzing with Bob Gilka Stories'
“What I miss most in your pictures is the input of the photographer. You see what most of us see and that is not enough. To rise above the great pack of people calling themselves photographers, one must develop seeing senses to the utmost. It is with a special kind of seeing ability that photographers make interesting, exciting or provocative images…My words are not likely to be comforting; they’re not meant to be. Photography is a tough profession.” – Bob Gilka in a letter to an aspiring photographer
Former National Geographic Director of Photography Robert E. Gilka was a man known for his honesty as a mentor to countless photographers – staff, freelancers and those trying to “make it”– as he fervently guarded the magazine’s standard of excellence. He died Tuesday, June 25, at the age of 96 in Arlington, Va., leaving behind a legacy as perhaps the toughest, but most-loved photography force in Geographic history.
Bob served 27 years as director of photography at the magazine, and became a major influencer in contemporary journalism. He joined the staff in 1958 as an illustrations editor, coming from the Milwaukee Journal, and was elevated to director of photography in 1963.
One of Gilka’s protégés, Chris Johns, executive vice president, group editorial director and editor in chief of NGM, reflected after hearing the news Tuesday: “The halls and offices of National Geographic are buzzing with Bob Gilka stories. There is laughter and there are tears because Bob touched so many lives in remarkable ways. He was an honest, direct, no-nonsense gentleman we never wanted to disappoint. He didn't gush and go on and on about our work, but we knew he cared deeply about us and believed in the work we were doing. He encouraged us, set standards of excellence and instilled in us the desire to become better photographers and editors. And, most importantly, he inspired us to grow in all aspects of our lives. Bob made me want to become a better son, husband, father, colleague and friend. I speak for many when I say how truly grateful we are to have known Bob and worked for him.”
Primatologist Jane Goodall even named one of her female chimpanzee’s after Gilka in his early days as a picture editor at NGM after agreeing to become her coach in photography. In 1982, News Photographer magazine published an entire feature dedicated to vignettes about Gilka, NGM’s “great stern face” as they called him, featuring narrative from then-staff photographers Jodi Cobb, Jim Blair and George Mobley, editor Bill Garrett and many more. The common thread: Gilka was at times “scary as hell,” but a listener who opened his door to thousands of photographers a year because “the one he refuses might be the next best photographer in the world,” as written by staff photographer Bob Madden.
Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1916, Bob attended West Division High School and went on to earn a bachelor of science degree in journalism from Marquette University in 1939. Bob spent two years as a reporter-photographer with the Zanesville (Ohio) Signal before joining the Army in 1941 as a private in the Medical department.
After serving in both Hawaii and later as a captain with an air excavation hospital unit in England, he was discharged in 1945 at the end of World War II.
Bob joined The Milwaukee Journal in 1945 and later was a rotogravure magazine editor and news picture editor from 1950 to 1958 before moving to the Society.
Bob met his late wife, Janet, at the Journal and the couple went on to have four children: Greer, Jena, Jeff and Gregory Gilka.
After retiring from Geographic in 1985, Bob became an adjunct professor of photojournalism at Syracuse University until 1992; he also served as a faculty member of the University of Missouri photojournalism workshop for over 50 years.
Washington Post obituary