Photography Legend Robert E. Gilka, 96

Jun 25, 2013
Robert E. Gilka and his cat at his home in Arlington, VA, in 2010. Photographs by J. Bruce Baumann
Robert E. Gilka and his cat at his home in Arlington, VA, in 2010. Photographs by J. Bruce Baumann

ARLINGTON, VA (June 25, 2013) – Robert E. Gilka, a newspaper photographer and editor who was a mentor to legions of photographers and who was the director of photography for National Geographic Magazine for more than 27 years, died today. 

Gilka was 96 and in hospice care in Arlington, VA, photojournalist Bruce Dale said, and he was battling with his third round of pneumonia this year when he peacefully passed at 4:40 a.m.

"Bob was a father figure to me, and to many of us who may not have had a father," Dale told News Photographer magazine today. "He dressed us down when we needed it, but he always stuck up for his staff. There was nothing he wouldn't do to defend his photographers."

"The halls and offices of National Geographic are buzzing with Bob Gilka stories," Chris Johns told News Photographer magazine today. Johns, who was only 28 when he was named the Newspaper Photographer of the Year, and who only three weeks ago was promoted to Geographic's editor in chief and executive vice president, probably knew Gilka as well as anyone over the decades. 

"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."

A protégé of Gilka, Johns is the first photographer to be named editor in chief of the magazine. 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.

Photojournalist and editor J. Bruce Baumann said today, "When Gilka retired from the Geographic, I sent him a note expressing my gratitude for being the father I never had. He was always there for me and so many others. I also told him that I was sad that had retired. He wrote back and in typical Gilka fashion said, 'I still have my memories.' Those words continue to serve me well to this day. He was the best of the best and I loved him." Baumann was a Geographic photographer and picture editor who worked for Gilka before he returned to newspapers.

"When I was the director of photography at the Bangor (Maine) Daily News, I knew that Bob Gilka was a subscriber," Russ Kendall said today. "Knowing that he would see the photo report every day terrified and inspired me in equal measure."

Gilka had been a resident at an assisted living facility in Arlington for the past three years, Dale said. Gilka's wife, Janet, preceded him in death in 2004. The couple had four children who survive: Greer, Jena, Geoffrey, and Gregory. Gilka would have turned 97 in July.

Former Geographic photographer Steve Raymer today said, "If we are lucky, once in a lifetime a mentor or friend helps us discover who we are and what we are capable of achieving.  For me, that was Bob Gilka. On the day he hired me, Bob said the two most important qualities in a photojournalist were how he or she saw and understood the world –'to see and to think,' as he often said. At a time when technological change is a fact of daily life, Bob's words are at once eloquent and prophetic. His view of what it means to be a photojournalist guides me daily."

The man who was a legend in American photographic circles started his career as a news and sports reporter and general assignment photographer at a paper in Zanesville, OH, after graduating from Marquette University in 1939 with a journalism degree. He met and married his wife Janet at the paper, where she was a reporter in 1941. Gilka served in the Army's Signal Corps and rose to the rank of Captain. 

After the war he became a copy editor and sports writer for The Milwaukee Journal, and he took over the Journal's picture desk in 1952. While in Milwaukee, Gilka built a photography staff that became a legend in their own right, with many of the shooters moving on to Sports Illustrated or National Geographic or other national newspapers and magazines.

Gilka himself joined the staff of National Geographic in 1958 as a picture editor, and was named photography director in 1963. He retired from Geographic in 1985 and was an adjunct professor of photojournalism at Syracuse University until 1992.

Gilka was also very proud of the fact that he was a faculty member of the University of Missouri photojournalism workshop for almost 50 years.

Any plans for services or memorials will be published when the information becomes available.

(Below) "Even in retirement, Gilka could still give you 'the look,'" J. Bruce Baumann says.