Gilka & McDougall: 100 Years Of Photojournalism

Jul 15, 2006

Bob Gilka (left) and Angus McDougall in 1982

By Sedda Kreabs

LOS ANGELES, CA  – Two of photojournalism’s legends are turning 90 this year. Angus “Mac” McDougall, former staff photographer and associate editor for International Harvester World magazine and long-time professor emeritus at the University of Missouri, turns 90 on October 29. Bob Gilka, renowned editor then director of photography at National Geographic for 25 years and professor emeritus at Syracuse University, celebrated his 90th birthday at his family’s summer home in Maine on July 12. Both journalists spent the early days of their careers at the Milwaukee Journal in the mid-1940s.

In celebration of their combined commitment of more than 100 years to photojournalism, News Photographer talked with them about where news photography has come from and where it’s headed.

How did you meet? How long have you known each other?

Gilka: I was at the [Milwaukee] Journal from ‘45-‘58 and I was the picture editor for six or eight of those years. I was very fortunate in getting that job because I followed one of the best they ever had. [Stan] Kalish. He was a fireball when it came to picture editing. He gave the paper a big punch.

McDougall: Don’t forget there was a Gilka who carried on better than he did.

Gilka: Well, I don’t admit to that. … So many of today’s photojournalists have got a university or college education. It was nothing like today; [now] we have so many intellectuals running these programs. They’ve got good departments now and those people coming out of these schools are really prepared.

Have you worked together on any assignments?

Gilka: Well I didn’t get out in the field there but I did help some from the picture desk.

McDougall: I really didn’t get acquainted with you until you got on the picture desk.

Gilka: I was hired by the sports department because they were short of manpower there. Furthermore I’ve always been of the opinion that your first order of business is to have a good staff. They know what to do. That’s what bothers me about this bloody digital program. Some of the people assigning the work demand to see every exposure. That’s stupid. If he can’t pre-edit his own film, you don’t want to hire him.

McDougall: When we used the big cameras, we made every shot count. Photographers today can use a motor drive and expect that if you shoot enough then you’ll be able to find the right picture after you look at the frames.

Gilka: They think, “I’ll make a lucky shot.”

McDougall: Bob was very good about photo assignments. He gave you all the background information that you needed. That’s what a lot of photo editors forget about; you’ve got to let the photographer know what to expect. And that’s what Bob did very well and I appreciated that.

Gilka: You hire people because they have skills.

Mac was in the middle of color in the Journal, it was one of the first metropolitan publications to use spot color. What was the name of the camera we used?

McDougall: Oh, the One Shot Color Camera.

Gilka: It was a camera twice the size of a Speed Graphic. I remember one of the first spot jobs we did was a fire. John Ahlhauser did it. We shot it in the morning, and we made that day’s paper.

McDougall: The One Shot Color Camera actually made three black-and-white separations in the camera. There was a red filter, a green filter, and a blue filter – what you had, you never did have color. These were the separations to be able to print in color – if you made black-and-white prints and put it in this viewer you could see it as color. It was a monster.

Gilka: I think [the prints were] 11x14. They had to be pretty big or you couldn’t get them to fit right, in this viewer. You had to get everything into register.

McDougall: By being a part of the mechanical department we got a lot more equipment than we ever would have, being a part of the editorial department. In the mechanical department, because they are dealing with the presses, engraving and all that, the photo department’s budget was almost incidental compared to paper and presses and all the rest. That enabled us to get the kind of equipment we wanted and needed.

What has changed in photojournalism over the years?

Gilka: I think the most important thing that happened in photojournalism in the last 40-50 years is the fact that we’re in the newsroom and out of the darkroom.

McDougall: That became a very famous quote.

Gilka: We see AMEs running things at newspapers. One of the most fantastic things, in my book, is Michele McNally at The New York Times, which was the basic grey lady for many, many years. You pick up the paper now and you can see right off the bat someone is running the show there.

McDougall: Some photographers [in the 1940s-50s] came up out of the darkroom and didn’t have the education, and we were thought of as second-class citizens.

Jim Brandenburg told News Photographer magazine in 1982, “Gilka is chiseled out of marble. You can feel his confidence.” Are picture editors and directors of photography still firm in their convictions, or have they changed over the years?

Gilka: The ones I know are firm. I think they’re firm and they’re good in their jobs at newspapers and magazines. If they’re insecure, they should be booted out the door.

McDougall: The news hole is so small these days that it’s a single picture for a story. And picture editors are looking for that one picture whereas before they could use a sequence or pair pictures.

McDougall and Gilka at POY judgingGilka: I’d like to add something about the origin of picture editors. Mac and I remember the early days, before World War II. In those days, picture editors came from someplace on the newsroom floor; he might come from the obit desk, and they gave him the job of picture editor. In those days it was common in the industry. The Milwaukee Journal was fortunate in that they had a different philosophy. They had people who knew something about pictures to begin with. They knew what pictures could do for their paper. It’s only in more recent years that you’ve got people as picture editors at the paper who really know anything about the process. Some of the smart ones who had that kind of education, had that kind of drive, they’ve done well, they’ve become executives. J. Bruce Baumann at Evansville, Indiana, is an example. He runs the paper now. … It’s a field that’s still open. A picture editor can move around in a corporate situation.

McDougall: I agree with you on that, Bob. A picture editor has more portability these days than a photographer, really, as far as his job is concerned.

Mac, you have told University of Missouri alumni that a positive attitude towards shooting is important. “If you go out on an assignment and think it’s a dog, you’ll come back with a dog. … It comes down to: Are you going to take the easy way out or are you going to try for something better?” In 1982 Gilka told photographer Steve Raymer to “make your own luck” when he was headed over the Laos border. Is this how photojournalists still succeed?

Gilka: Gotta have guts. The writer and the photographer have got to be in gear, and be side by side. … Those are complicated situations and if you don’t have cooperation between the writer and the photographer, you could have two different stories. I don’t know any writer who’s worth his salt that doesn’t listen to a photographer.

McDougall: If you are given an assignment, and you prejudge it, and say, “This one is not worth very much,” you’re not going to put any effort in it. And you’ll come back and prove that you were right: that you didn’t work very hard to get a picture out of a weak visual situation. It’s very important for a photographer to have a can-do attitude and find a picture in a non-picture situation.

Gilka: Absolutely, you should make a success out of every assignment.

When a photographer once asked, “What IS reality?” Gilka replied, “‘What is a fake?’ That’s the question, not ‘What is reality?’ What gets registered on the film is truth for the moment.” Have photojournalism ethics changed in the digital era? Has the reader’s trust of photojournalism been affected?

McDougall: I really think so. Because it’s so easy to manipulate a digital picture and you see it in advertising; these pictures are so slick and you know it can’t actually be an honest photo. I think readers are becoming very suspicious of pictures that are taken digitally. And that’s a sad situation. And the manipulation doesn’t come from the photographers; it’s after their work that someone has done the manipulating.

Gilka: I have a feeling that out there in the public audience of newspapers, there’s a share of the readers that have suspected for a long, long time that this or that picture could be faked. I don’t think any serious newspaper readers – the ones who look at the pictures, read the caption, the story that goes with them – I don’t think they are concerned about fakery.

In 1982 National Geographic had that situation, when the pyramids were moved together to fit on the cover.

Gilka: After that there was a rule handed down from on high: “That ain’t going to happen any more,” and it hasn’t happened. The editor at the time said, all I did was make the picture look like it was taken with a different lens. He didn’t do anything like that again. In the meeting, an art director protested and the editor overruled him.

McDougall: It takes some kind of crisis like that to get things shaken up. When a dishonest picture has been uncovered, it creates a stir, then management gets in the act and starts really laying down rules that “we won’t manipulate” and that kind of thing.

Where do you see the future of photojournalism going? In what direction is it moving?

Gilka: That is a really hard question. I don’t have an answer for that; I’ve thought a lot about it. I feel really badly, really, that there’s some good photographers I know that are just scrambling like hell to make a living. Freelance photographers, very capable … . Those guys and gals who have a specialty are in pretty good shape, still. Journalists who freelance who don’t have a specialty are the ones I’m concerned about.

McDougall: It seems you almost have to have a specialty to survive. As a freelancer, if you have a specialty, I think that your chances of making a fairly good living are improved. What really happens, of course, you’re taking commercial pictures that aren’t very satisfying to you as a photographer. But if indeed you still are a true photojournalist, you’ll use that money to do the kind of personal photography you want to do and that can be some good kind of photojournalism.

According to Dave S. Boyer (former staff photographer) Gilka once told a young photographer, “If you’re going to become a photographer, you’ll have to learn how to pray,” because the ratio of students to jobs was 5 to 1. How has competition in the industry changed, especially in light of corporate ownership and newspaper conglomerates? Is loyalty still important?

Gilka: That’s a tough one, really. I’m pessimistic about the turns things are taking these days. The newspapers are by and large losing circulation; they’re losing money because their ads are off and I think one of the worst aspects of the big league journalists today is so many of these big companies are on the market – Wall Street. You get a bunch of stockholders, of The Philadelphia Inquirer who aren’t satisfied with a profit of 17 percent … that means the working press, the editors, have got to cope with that. They have to work with a shorter staff; they have to get the job done quicker. It’s a damn cruel world in many respects. And the ones who are suffering the most are the freelance photographers. That market has shrunk dramatically over the past months because the magazines go to the files, go to the agents.

McDougall: I agree very much with what Bob has said. I just emphasize the fact that because of our corporations and the bottom line, it works against the newspapers’ interests because of the stockholders’ interest.

Gilka, I understand primate researcher Jane Goodall named a chimpanzee after you. Is that true?

Gilka: That was a result for me of an interesting situation. I was a newly hired picture editor at the Geographic. And she came in with the story of the chimps in Africa as a story idea and as a research grant approved by the research committee. She had a limited experience with the camera. She demonstrated that she could get right up close and tight with these animals and it looked like it would be a cinch to get a hell of a story. Because we didn’t have anything like that in those days. I was designated to be her coach in photography. … She named several chimps after officers of the National Geographic Society.

McDougall: That’s pretty good PR. … All I can say is I had a cat named after me. The editor of the Springfield, Illinois, paper was a former student, and he named his cat after me. So I can’t beat Bob.

I’d have to disagree with that, Mac. Pictures of the Year International has named its highest editing award after you, for best use of photos: the Angus McDougall Overall Excellence in Editing Award for Newspapers.

McDougall: I have to be flattered at that, I suppose. I don’t know whether it’s deserved or not.

Gilka: I think Mac earned everything he’s got. He really was a pioneer in education. He was in it in a time when there was a great demand for people like him.

McDougall: Normally you don’t get something named after you while you’re still alive. It was a bit unusual that way, I guess. Someone has said that’s the longest label for a category in the whole contest.

Mac has talked about how rewarding his career has been, due to the opportunity afforded by his cameras to meet a wide variety of interesting people and situations. How has photography affected or changed your lives?

Gilka: I don’t know. I know I’ve had a hell of a roll.

McDougall: For me, it never seemed to be a job. This sounds corny, but I loved doing what I was doing. Lucky to get paid for being able to do that.

Gilka: I think everyone’s got ups and downs in a job. Sure there’s going to be some hard times in there when things don’t work right. … I think one of life’s secrets is: doing what you’d like to do best, where you’d like to live.

Gilka: We had some great times.

McDougall: We really have, haven’t we?

Gilka: We really were in it in a wonderful time.

McDougall: Because of the lifespan, we’ve seen an awful lot of changes, some for the good and some, not so good.

 

Kreabs, a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a former picture editor, is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles, CA.