Sunday, July 09, 2006

Wipe your knees before entering

When I first started out, I wanted nothing more than to shoot for the National Geographic. Me and thousands of others. Upon graduating from Brooks Institute in late 1975, one of my instructors came up to me and said "great news, I've gotten you a job at Boeing - in Seattle". You see at that time in America, corporations needed to fill some demographic quotas in order to keep their contracts with the US government. In other words, they needed to hire women and minorities. Since I was one of 6 women at the school and the only one in my graduating class I was offered that "token" job. Even though I was pretty young at the time, I was savvy enough to know two things -

1. I wasn't ever going to get anywhere being the "token" employee and

2. Working at Boeing and photographing "nuts and bolts" was not going to get me to my goal of shooting for the Geographic.

So, I turned him down and I wish I had taken a picture of the look on his face.

I moved back to the East Coast to center myself in the New York City area because at that time, it was the heart of the publishing industry. And it was a 4 hour train ride to Washington DC where National Geographic was headquartered. About every six months or so, I would put together a portfolio of my very best images, along with pages of story ideas to propose to the magazine. Robert Gilka was the Director of Photography - a legend in his time. He was also one of the most intimidating people I had ever met - not because he was mean or anything like that - but because he was the top gun for photography at the magazine and if I was ever going to get in the door at the Geographic - I had to walk through Gilka's door first.

The first time I went to see Gilka, I signed in at the desk in the lobby, got my visitor's badge and took the elevator to the 4th floor. I was met by his secretary who asked me to take a seat on the chair outside his office. As I sat down, I saw IT - there on his door was a doormat you know one of those bristly things you wipe your feet on. But woven into the doormat were the words "Wipe your knees before entering". I was beginning to think of ways I could excuse myself right then and there and leave, when Gilka invited me into his office. He asked me what he could do for me and I timidly handed over my carousel of slides to have a look at. As he clicked though them he made very few comments. But one of the comments I do remember was when he referred to a few of my images as "wowy zowy". When Gilka said your photos were "wowy zowy" - he meant that they were graphically stunning and appealing to slick art directors but in his opinion were not journalistic - didn't communicate a story. But he did offer an occasional "nice moment" which was just enough to encourage me. He also told me that the best way to get an assignment for the magazine was to propose a story that the magazine would be interested in.

A photo that may be considered "wowy zowy"

So over the next 3 years, I would pitch stories - sometimes I would take the time to research a story and write a proposal and sometimes I would just throw out an idea to him - either over the phone or on one of my visits. I also researched everything that the National Geographic had done since it started publishing - so that I wouldn't pitch an idea that had just run in the magazine in a recent issue. I did my homework - I knew that magazine inside and out. Robert Gilka was a man of few words. Most photographers were in and out of his office in less than 15 minutes. I usually lasted a half hour - I would show recent work and then I would throw out one liners as story ideas - to which he would reply "done it", "doing it" or "don't want to do it".

One time I had a tightly scheduled day in Washington DC. I had a 10AM appointment at the Geographic, an 11AM at the Smithsonian etc. At 10AM I showed up for my appointment with Gilka - but he got caught up in a meeting and kept me waiting until about 10:30. I'm a very punctual person and one thing that really stresses me out and aggravates me is when someone - anyone - keeps me waiting. So when I walked into his office I was not in a very chatty mood. He apologized that he kept me waiting and I looked at my watch and said that I was in a hurry because I had an appointment across town at the Smithsonian in a half hour. Gilka knew the photo editor at Smithsonian - Declan Haun- because Declan used to work for Gilka at the Geographic. So he picked up the phone and called Declan to tell him that I'd be late - on account of him. I went through my usual list of ideas, showed my photos and then rushed off to the Smithsonian. When, I walked in the first thing Declan wanted to know was how I got Gilka to call him and let him know I was running late - I think that Declan was suitably impressed.

About a month after that meeting, I got a call from Bob Gilka and he asked me if I would like to come to Washington DC - that he had a job for me and would I like to have lunch. I almost dropped the phone. But I did go down to DC and Gilka and I and another photographer had lunch at a Chinese restaurant. When the waiter asked me what I wanted to drink - I ordered a Tsingtao - so did the other photographer and then the waiter asked Gilka what he wanted - he looked at me and said "what the hell is a tsingtao?" I said it's a beer and a pretty good one. So he ordered one as well and we all toasted to my first assignment at the National Geographic.

Incidently, a few years later, after shooting quite a few stories for the National Geographic Traveler, I got an assignment to shoot a story on Santa Barbara, California - my old stomping grounds when I attended Brooks. I sent a note to the photojournalism teacher at Brooks and he asked if I could spare some time and show some work to his students and talk to them. I did and I noticed that the teacher who had offered me the job at Boeing was sitting in the back of the room. When my presentation was over, he came up to me and said "you know you really should have taken that job" - over 20 years later and he was still stewing over it.


Blogger Michael Clemmer said...

Wonderful story, Gail. When I showed up at his door, in the mid-80's, I don't think the mat was still there. Somehow my fifteen became thirty but it seemed like five. He was kind, complimentary, even gracious. A week later Lilian called with a book assignment. I nearly died.
All the best to you,
Michael Clemmer

3:09 PM  

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