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.

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“Breaking The Spirit”

I was reminded recently of an experience that I had while shooting a story for Smithsonian Magazine on Arthur County, Nebraska. Truth be told, it was an assignment that I almost didn’t accept. I thought that a story about the least populated county in the United States was not a story for me – I shot city stories for the most part. But then I thought, why not? It ended up being one of the most gratifying magazine assignments that I ever did – on many levels.

Personally, it pushed me out of my cultural norm. “What am I going to do in a desolate part of the country where cows far out number the people?” Photographically speaking as a people shooter, it really pushed me to see and shoot differently. Because there were so few people, I lingered longer and got a closer glimpse into their lives than I normally would have on a 7 day city shoot with lots to cover.

One day stood out for me. I was photographing a cowboy “breaking” horses. cowboy_belt_buckle I watched as he worked with an incredibly spirited horse, trying at first to calm the animal. I remember asking a question about “breaking” the horse to which the handler replied that he never wanted to “break” an animal’s spirit, but rather to gain the animal’s trust. I thought to myself that this cowboy must be a wonderful father and husband and a part of me fell in love with that notion – his understanding of the difference between “managing” this stunning creature and “breaking” its spirit.

I realized that maybe that moment in time was in essence the story itself and the reason that I needed to take that assignment. I remind myself of that every time I’m hesitant to stray from my comfort zone. That almost always there’s a reward. I was fortunate that the assignment editor on that piece saw something in me that I didn’t.  So many times, for a variety of reasons “clients” feel the need to over dictate the visual message and the end piece reflects that, becoming an entity that is neither “here nor there”.  The “spirit” of the piece becomes broken.

These days because of tight budgets and fear of losing one’s job – things tend to become more predictible and safe – choosing shooters who’ve done that type of story before or re-doing the same stories that have proven to be “successful” in the past. But every once in awhile – someone (like the cowboy) comes along and recognizes something in my spirit and gives me the necessary “rope” to bring my vision to the project while still managing the “whole” – and marvelous things happen.

A Means To An End

I read this weekend about a memorial service for the late lindy hopper Frankie Manning. Frankie died last month – he was 94 years old. Frankie might have looked like his years but when he danced – he was 18 again.

I met and photographed Frankie Manning about 10 years ago when I was shooting a story about swing dancing for Smithsonian Magazine. I had pitched the story to Smithsonian at a time when “swing” had become the “thing” – once again. As much as I had a great time shooting the story, I kicked myself from time to time for pitching a story all about movement and sound to a print publication. But it got me thinking about video.

About the same time, technology was making a profound impact on video and specifically DV (digital video). I was hearing about how filmmakers and journalists were experimenting with video as an affordable means to approach their craft – without the need for huge crews and big Hollywood budgets. Then I read about the first DV symposium that was going to take place at the AFI (American Film Institute) in Los Angeles. I flew out to LA a month later to attend and it was a week that changed my world – my creative world that is. I listened to panel discussions, took workshops and learned about cameras and editing systems etc. It was a springboard for my mind and I started thinking of all the stories that I wanted to tell – that I could only tell – with a “motion” medium.

Ultimately, I got into video because it was the right medium to communicate certain messages. At that time video wasn’t the trend.  I didn’t feel  like I needed to learn it because everyone was doing it. For me it was the right tool for certain stories. It was a means to an end.

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