Former National Geographic photo director Robert Gilka dies at 96

National Press Photographers Association | Milwaukee Journal Sentinel | Gail Mooney

Robert E. Gilka, who was National Geographic’s director of photography from 1963 to 1985, died Tuesday, the National Press Photographers Association reports. He was 96.

Gilka “was a mentor to so many of the leading magazine and book photographers of our era, many who shot their first assignments for National Geographic motivated more to prove themselves to the sometimes-gruff photography director than to see the credit line ‘National Geographic’ behind their byline,” NPPA’s obit reads.

Before NatGeo, Gilka worked at the Milwaukee Journal, where, Journal Sentinel writer Jan Uebelherr says, he “built the Milwaukee Journal photo desk into a legendary force.” After Gilka retired from National Geographic, he became an adjunct professor of photojournalism at Syracuse University, and he was “also very proud of the fact that he was a faculty member of the University of Missouri photojournalism workshop for almost 50 years,” NPPA’s tribute reads.

The Alexia Foundation gave Gilka a lifetime achievement award in 2006. That same year, Gail Mooney wrote about meeting Gilka, who she called “one of the most intimidating people I had ever met — not because he was mean or anything like that — but because he was the top gun for photography at the magazine and if I was ever going to get in the door at the Geographic — I had to walk through Gilka’s door first.” His doormat said “Wipe your knees before entering,” Mooney wrote, remembering their first encounter in the mid-’70s.

He asked me what he could do for me and I timidly handed over my carousel of slides to have a look at. As he clicked though them he made very few comments. But one of the comments I do remember was when he referred to a few of my images as “wowy zowy”. When Gilka said your photos were “wowy zowy” – he meant that they were graphically stunning and appealing to slick art directors but in his opinion were not journalistic – didn’t communicate a story. But he did offer an occasional “nice moment” which was just enough to encourage me. He also told me that the best way to get an assignment for the magazine was to propose a story that the magazine would be interested in.

A photo that may be considered “wowy zowy.”

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