A Tribute to Bob Gilka by Bruce Dale

The photographic world lost a great friend this week.

Bob Gilka nurtured generations of National Geographic photographers, inspiring them to produce timeless images during his watch as Director of Photography at the magazine from 1963 until 1985 — a period when circulation soared from 1.5 million to nearly 11 million. Robert E. Gilka, 96, died on June 25th in Arlington, Virginia, after a bout with pneumonia.

Bob was a modest man who answered his own phone whenever he was in the office. He personally looked at every hopeful photographer’s portfolio submitted to him. His gruff voice installed fear in many of those who first met him. The sign on his office door, “Wipe knees when entering,” and the church confessional kneeler next to his desk, probably contributed to
visitors’ uneasiness. But beneath that gruff voice was the most sensitive man you could ever want to meet.

He gave no-nonsense reviews of portfolios, always honest, but in a positive way. In a review of David Allan Harvey’s early work, Bob wrote, “David, you are young, and strong. That is good. Because what I am going to tell you will make you feel old and weak.” Harvey took Bob’s critique to heart, went back to work, and not long thereafter got his first assignment for the
magazine. He went on to become one of the Geographic’s most successful photographers.

Gilka’s longtime assistant, Lillian Davidson, says, “The most exciting moments for Bob were days when he met a new photographer who showed him images through new eyes. Bob wasn’t looking for picture-takers — he wanted story-tellers.

Bob was a staunch defender of everyone in the Geographic’s photographic department, from administrative assistants to the technicians in the finest photo lab in the world.

Like many other young photographers, I met Bob at a photo workshop. In 1963, I took a week’s vacation from my job at the Toledo Blade to attend the University of Missouri workshop. Gilka became my mentor there, gave me several short assignments, and eventually invited me to join the Geographic staff.

It’s hard to list the number of photographers he plucked from obscurity to a lifetime of photojournalism. Sam Abell, Bill Allard, Dave Harvey, Frans Lanting, and Jodi Cobb are a few of the better-known. Dozens more were guided by him through the years.

Bob enjoyed a glass of fine wine as much as he did spending hours with his shotgun in a duck blind — but never at the same time. He treasured his visits from his late friend, Pulitzer-prize-winning photographer Brian Lanker, and together they concocted truly gourmet feasts.

Bob leaves behind daughters Greer Gilka of Arlington and Jena Gilka of Alexandria, Virginia; sons Geoffrey Gilka of Lafayette, New York, and Gregory Gilka of Machias, Maine; a grandson, Mark, and two great-grandchildren, Nelson and Gwyneth. His beloved wife of 63 years, Janet Bailey Gilka, preceded him in death in 2004.

Bob’s favorite parting words were, “I’ll see you subsequently.”

— Bruce Dale