50-Years of Vision Quest
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This work-in-progress is the unveiling of a fifty-year visual-journey by photographer John Chao. You’re signing up for future updates, events, and offerings. We guard your privacy and maintain your exclusive ad-free subscription. Unsubscribe at any time with a click of a button. Thank you!
-Continued from Published
Bob Gilka, the Director of Photography at National Geographic Magazine seem to resent me for sleeping with the enemy. He was not about to further my career. He saw me as a rule-breaker. Someone unbefitting to his proven talents even though I graduated from the very top of his associated institutions. He never gave me a single assignment, voluntarily, that is. Thirty years later, his assistant sought me out at a gathering and told me he was near death.
I embraced her, asked her to wish him my best and to tell him how much I’ve admired and looked up to him. Her eyes glassed; in a tender, almost apologetic voice, she said. “Thank you, John, I know it will mean a lot to Mr. Gilka to hear this coming from you.”
Gilka was an ego-driven drill sergeant whose magazine was his oligarchy. The reputation and mystique behind the magazine suited him well. My first encounter with the man was in his office. Like all aspiring photographers, we made our way to be ordained. On his door, the sign said, Wipe Your Knees Before Entering.
“You need to work for a newspaper!” was his response after viewing my portfolio. Sheepishly told him I was offered a job in a Kansas newspaper but turned-it-down because I didn’t want to leave NYC. Before I could finish, he yelled: “Who Clarkson!?”
Surprised by the outburst, I timidly said, “Yes!” He stared at me for an eternity. I swear I saw smoke sputter out of his head. He hissed, “NOW, IF THAT IS TRUE! You have to be the dumbest jack-ass ever walked into my office!”
With his doubting eyes, he glared at me as if he’d caught me in a lie. “Do you know how many photographers would give their right arm to be at the Capital-Journal?!” My sheepishness must have confirmed his suspicions. Not being a student of journalism, I was unaware of the extensive network this drill-sergeant uses to gather his Geographic talents. Colleges, newspapers across the country, the bastion of the Missouri Workshop, were all part of his well-established web. That morning, I was utterly unaware; Topeka Capital-Journal was the pinnacle of his recruitment network. Anyone hired there would not have gone unnoticed, and anyone declining a job there is a liar. “Well, get the hell out there and come back after you have some newspaper experience.” (I swear I’ve got a bruise on my rear to prove it ;-).
So I called Rich Clarkson and asked if the job offer was still good.
A FEW YEARS LATER, I sat in the same office facing the same doubting face. Chief Editor, Bill Garrett insisted that he assign me to photograph an article I’d proposed on Taiwan. After weeks of delay, he reluctantly offered me a fraction of the day-rate compared to GEO and later made a stink about the Chinese receipts I submitted. I did not get more assignments from him even though the Taiwan article was credited to be “transformative.” I don’t know what that meant, but it was, the first time Geographic published blurred pictures. So when his assistant made the non-verbal apology, I was surprised and wished that I had the opportunity to sit and laugh with the old geezer some 30-years later.
I understand Bob Gilka; we had mutual friends. I will always be grateful to him. Firstly, in helping me realize what newspaper work means. Secondly, in affirming my conviction NOT to wear corporate success as a form of personal achievement. Throughout the years, I knew he was surprised to hear my name intertwined in conversations. I was the jack-ass that kept beating the drum but didn’t follow his path. I think, in the end, he would have applauded me for doing this. RIP
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