Wipe Your Knees Before Entering

I just learned that Bob Gilka, legendary Director of Photography at the National Geographic for over 20 years passed away yesterday.  He was 96 years old.  Bob was the “real deal” and he will be missed by many, but his legacy lives on in all the photographers careers that he shaped and mentored. I am reposting a blog that I wrote about Bob on December 1, 2009.  Rest in peace Mr. Gilka.

Back in the eighties when I was starting out, every six months or so I made the pilgrimage to Washington DC to see Bob Gilka, The Director of Photography at the National Geographic Magazine.  He was the guy who decided if you would shoot for the magazine. doormat2  He was accessible, answered his own phone and made appointments to look at work. How times have changed.

Gilka was a man of few words and because of that seeing him was always a bit intimidating.  If all you had were images to show – and nothing to say, you’d pretty much be in and out of his office in the amount of time it took to click through your slides. Knowing this, I did my homework prior to the appointment. I’d come up with about 10 query ideas, research back issues of the magazine to make sure they hadn’t been done before and have at least one idea written up in a story proposal.

I’ll never forget the first time I went to Gilka’s office.  His secretary met me in the lobby, and led me to a small area just outside his office.  There on his door was a doormat –with words that read “Wipe Your Knees Before Entering”.  Talk about feeling intimidated – as if it wasn’t intimidating enough just to be meeting with the Director of Photography  at the  National Geographic.

So every six months or so I would show my images and pitch my ideas.  This went on for about two years.  Each time I went I would almost test myself to see how long I could stay in his office.  I would do my best to sell my story pitches that I felt the strongest about and he would reply – “done it –doing it – or – don’t want to do it”.  This coupled with a few words of encouragement in regards to some of my photographs would pretty much be it as far as feedback.

Then one day he kept me waiting.  He had been detained in a meeting.  I had scheduled a pretty tight day to maximize my trip to Washington – so the delay had thrown a wrench into me keeping my other appointments that I had scheduled.  When Gilka did show up and apologized, I was already feeling quite anxious and showed it.  I told him that I didn’t have much time because I had to be across town at the Smithsonian in 20 minutes.  He picked up the phone, called Declan Haun, the picture editor I was headed to see at Smithsonian Magazine and explained that Gail Mooney was running late due to his tardiness.  Then he proceeded to look at my pictures and hear me out.

When I did get to the Smithsonian, it was amusing to see how curious Declan Haun was to find out who this Gail Mooney was that got Bob Gilka to call ahead for her. The very next month, I got a call from Bob Gilka offering me my first assignment.  Guess I just needed to show my real self. I had sufficiently shown my interest and determination in wanting to shoot for them. And I had demonstrated my photographic ability through my images.  But it was when I showed my true spirit that he knew that I could shoot for them.  I just had to get over my fright.


Are You a DP or a Hybrid? – What’s the Difference?

I’m searching for “the word” the “title” of what I am these days.  I’m a photographer.  I also shoot video but I hate the word “videographer” because it sounds a bit cheap to me or at least dated. I generally think to myself that I’m a “visionographer” but I tend to “title” myself as a “media producer”. With all the talk recently about getting into video, I feel the need to make a distinction between being a shooter or a DP as opposed to a producer.

There is nothing new about still photographers moving forward in their careers and segwaying into commercial motion work.  Traditionally they take on the role of the DP (Director of Photography).  Many times they don’t man the camera but direct the shooter instead.  Generally speaking they work in large crews and with agencies.  The biggest distinction is that most times it’s a “work for hire” situation because the production company owns the finished product.

With the explosion of video and in particular web video, come new buyers for this medium.  Buyers from the corporate world as well as institutions and even ad agencies that may have been historically just “print”.  With the advancement of technology and being able to deliver a high end product because of it – leaner and meaner small production companies have come along.  When you have a shooter using the RED and able to deliver not only the motion part of the job but able to pull stills from the shoot, once again still photographers feel threatened.

When I got started in video, I made a conscious decision to take on the producer’s role.  I could choose to shoot or edit or I could delegate these roles to outside contractors.  I could also form partnerships that were fluid as the needs may be.  But more importantly, I maintained ownership of the final product – which was what I was used to coming from my still photographer background.

Still photographers are essentially producers anyway so it’s not such a mental leap.  So when your client comes to you and asks you if you shoot video (and you don’t) think before you answer that with a NO answer.  It may be better to form some partnerships with people who do and not only keep the money in house – but not send your client off to someone who does.

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