Bob Gilka, 96; transformed National Geographic’s images

Robert E. Gilka (left) with photographer Winfield Parks Jr. and equipment before a shoot.
Robert E. Gilka (left) with photographer Winfield Parks Jr. and equipment before a shoot.

WASHINGTON — National Geographic belongs to a rare breed of magazine, the sort with a shelf life as long as a book’s. When back issues of other periodicals are tossed to the garbage, yellow-bordered, photo-filled volumes end up on living room shelves and in attic boxes, maybe gathering dust but still too precious for their owner to part with.

Bob Gilka, who died Tuesday at 96, oversaw National Geographic photography for about two decades and helped establish the publication as one of the world’s premier sources of photojournalism. Such was his reputation, magazine staff members recalled, that primatologist Jane Goodall named one of her chimpanzees Gilka.

As photography director from 1963 to 1985, Mr. Gilka recruited and deployed field photographers who scaled mountains, plumbed oceans, braved the exotic near and far from home, and risked their lives to send back an image that would not disappoint.


He commanded both respect and fear. Outside his office, he posted a sign admonishing visitors to wipe their knees before entering; near his desk was a kneeler. Steve McCurry, the photographer whose 1985 cover image of the ‘‘Afghan girl’’ became one of National Geographic’s most acclaimed photos, compared a visit with Mr. Gilka to Judgment Day.

Get Today's Headlines in your inbox:
The day's top stories delivered every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

He may not have been gentle, but he was often right. Mr. Gilka ‘‘moved the magazine from posed and orchestrated pictures into candid, documentary photojournalism,’’ said Terry Eiler, who worked for Mr. Gilka before cofounding the Ohio University School of Visual Communications.

Among Mr. Gilka’s early hires was William Albert Allard, who became one of the magazine’s marquee photographers. Allard said in an interview that Mr. Gilka ‘‘took me off the street and got me my first professional job,’’ a project documenting the Amish in Pennsylvania.

Another hire, David Doubilet, became renowned for his underwater photography. He was bitten and poisoned in the line of duty. But his worst fear, he once told Photo District News, was ‘‘a vision of Gilka’s face saying, ‘Where the hell is the picture, Doubilet?!’’’

Mr. Gilka cultivated intense loyalty from his photographers by letting them run with their ideas, even when those ideas might have seemed, to another editor, hare-brained. Bruce Dale, another hire, said he photographed a bullet barreling through a watch, a photographic pun for ‘‘killing time.’’ He captured the courtship behavior of roadrunners by mounting a camera aboard a small remote-controlled vehicle.


Mr. Gilka also was credited with diversifying the staff to include women. Among those he hired were Annie Griffiths, Jodi Cobb, and Susan Smith, all of whom went on to distinguished careers. He hired Sarah Leen, the magazine’s senior photo editor, as an intern.

Mr. Gilka delighted in giving photographers the extravagant budgets that the era allowed. Dale recalled buying mice for the rattlesnakes that he kept in a beer cooler and used to attract roadrunners. Another photographer once bought an airplane. Expense-report forms provided for ‘‘gifts to natives.’’

And when photographers needed to see their families, after months on the road in a lifestyle romanticized in ‘‘The Bridges of Madison County,’’ he found a way to get them home.

Robert Emanuel Gilka was born in Milwaukee. He shoveled sand to work his way through Marquette University, where he received a bachelor’s degree in journalism in 1939. During World War II, he served in the Pacific and in Europe, including at a field hospital in England, and left with the rank of captain.

He got his first journalism job at a newspaper in Zanesville, Ohio, and was later hired by the Milwaukee Journal, where he rose to oversee the picture desk. National Geographic hired him in 1958 as a picture editor.


Mr. Gilka died at the Sunrise Senior Living assisted living center in Arlington County, Va., of complications ofpneumonia, said his son Jeff of LaFayette, N.Y. Besides his son, he leaves three other children, Greer of Arlington, Jena of Alexandria, Va., and Gregory of Machias, Maine; a grandson; and two great-grandchildren. His wife, Janet Bailey Gilka, was regarded as a den mother to National Geographic photographers; she died in 2004 after 63 years of marriage.

The image of the Afghan girl, whom McCurry photographed in a Pakistani refugee camp in 1984, was one of the last covers published during Mr. Gilka’s tenure at National Geographic.

In an interview, McCurry recalled that some editors thought the image of the young woman, with her searing gaze, might be too disturbing for American coffee tables. Another image showed the girl covering the lower half of her face with her hands and a head scarf and looking more ‘‘quiet’’ than tortured, McCurry said.

Mr. Gilka argued that the first photograph more accurately conveyed the reality of refugee life and persuaded other editors to run it. They did. The young woman has been called the ‘‘Afghan Mona Lisa.’’