Witness to history marks 50 years as Seattle photojournalist

Jul 10, 2017, 6:23 AM | Updated: 8:16 am

Greg Gilbert has seen it all. Or most of it, anyway. And he has the pictures to prove it.

On Monday, Gilbert marked 50 years as a photographer for The Seattle Times. He was just 21 years old when he was hired on July 10, 1967 by legendary Northwest photographer and photo editor Josef Scaylea.

Over those five very full decades, Gilbert has witnessed the best and worst of local history and has captured images that have let all of us get closer to the action, too.

Here are edited excerpts from a conversation with Greg Gilbert about some of his most memorable camera-in-hand moments over the years.

Early days … in a band uniform

I started in high school as a photographer. I played in the [Olympia] High School band and we were invited to play at the World’s Fair in May 1962. And so we played in the morning, and we had the rest of the day to wander around the world’s fairgrounds. I had my band uniform on, and of course, I always had a camera. And I’m wandering around by myself, and here I see this crowd of people hovering around one man and they’re walking towards the Science Center. I got closer, and it was John Glenn. So I followed along – wearing my band uniform, no press credentials or anything – and we went into the building where, four or five months earlier, he had been in space in the space capsule that was there on display. So he stood in front of the capsule and I was not up close, but I held the camera over my head, which they call a “Hail Mary,” and shot a picture. I was 14 years old and won a national high school award for that photo.

A lifetime of hydroplane races

I photographed my first [Seafair] hydro race when I was 15 years old and I rented a 600 millimeter lens. I couldn’t even drive, and my dad drove me up to the pits and I’m carrying this 600-millimeter lens over my shoulder, and my dad’s carrying the tripod. We had no press credentials or anything, and we walked right in and they let us out on the barge, and I photographed the time trials of the race. I’ve been photographing the hydros ever since. I think I’ve only missed one race.

Photographing fires, then and now

One of the tragic fires that I photographed was the Ozark Hotel downtown [in March 1971]. It was a flophouse hotel on a triangular block. I got a call in the middle of the night to go down there and I was the only photographer there. There were people fainting on the street with the fire. I got [pictures of] people being revived, and I got [pictures of] firefighters carrying unconscious people down ladders. I had the whole place to myself and I was shooting everything that I could. It was way before the era of yellow tape and there weren’t any other photographers there. It was quite memorable. So I came back to the Times, tired, and just went and started developing film with my clothes reeking of smoke and my shoes were wet from the water coming off the building. The adrenaline is still flowing and I can’t work fast enough. There was a big fire in Ballard, that boat fire about three weeks ago, and I live on a boat in Ballard. I was just coming back with my son and we saw the smoke and it was just very close to where I moor my boat, so we immediately took off. And I got out in the water and shot the fire . . . tremendous flames like I’d never seen. I was thinking about how calm I was with that, that I had just been to so many fires over the years, you’re sort of on autopilot.

Buying a birthday cake . . . for a gorilla

The Times had a contest to name Bobo [the famous gorilla at Woodland Park Zoo in the 1950s and 1960s] and so we were kind of responsible for his birthday party every year. So when I was first there in 1967, a reporter and I stopped at Safeway and got a cake and brought it out to the zoo. And then they sequestered Bobo in a separate room, and then the keeper put the cake down on the floor. I’d never photographed this before, but the keeper said, “Be ready, be ready – this is gonna happen quick.” Then they opened the door and Bobo came swooping in and just wooshed the cake up against the wall and it just flew, and pieces of the cake were just flying everywhere.

Space Needle, pre-OSHA

It’s funny, you know, to watch Seattle grow. When I started at the Times in 1967, the tallest building was the Smith Tower, and the Space Needle was just five years old, it had just been built for the 1962 World’s Fair. And five years later when I started [at the Times], they were repainting it. And I got the assignment to go up on the top of the Needle, out on the apron on the edge, and walk around with the painters while they’re painting it. This is before the days of OSHA, there were no safety lines. I go up there now and I look out from the observation deck, and I look over at that apron around, which is not level. It’s sort of slanted. And I thought, how did I ever do that?

Seattle Pilots’ 1969 downward slide

The stadium [where the Seattle Pilots played their one and only Major League Baseball season] was so small, the only place we could photograph was from the roof. And actually I got some neat shots from up there, like Tommy Harper sliding into home – so you’re looking right straight down on him, and the umpire is putting his hands out and Tommy Harper is kind of wincing, smiling. Then there would be a foul ball that would come up on the roof, and so I would snag a couple of those to give to my kids. But as the season wore on and the money was getting tighter, they had a guy up there collecting the balls. Who knows if they were reusing them or what, but you couldn’t grab a ball to have.

Will the last person to leave Seattle take a photo?

Without Greg Gilbert’s photographs of it, a certain short-lived billboard would likely have never achieved its status as an icon of Seattle history.

Bob McDonald [one of two men responsible for the “Will the last person leaving Seattle turn out the lights?” billboard near the airport in May 1971] also went to Olympia High School with me, but he was years ahead of me. We kept in touch and he called me at the Times and said, “We’re putting up this billboard . . . there’s so much negativism in Seattle [because of the Boeing Bust] and so we want to play off of that, and show that there’s still a possibility that we should remain positive about Seattle.” And so they put it up, but it got misconstrued. I think they had to take it down within two weeks because people didn’t get it.

Seafair Parade and piloting the Goodyear Blimp

The Goodyear Blimp would come here quite often, and they would land at Sand Point [now Magnuson Park] when it used to be an airport. I took pictures, photographed its landing, and we went around with the pilot. I realized it only does like 35 miles an hour, so you can roll down the window and put your hand out like your driving down the highway, the breeze is going by. They were here for Seafair one year, so I had this idea to shoot the Seafair Torchlight Parade from the Goodyear Blimp because I could shoot fairly slow shutter speed, shooting down as it got dark, so the floats that were lit up would shine up at me. So I was up there with the pilot, and the pilot had to excuse himself for a minute. There was a little restroom in the back of the gondola, and he said, “You drive.” And so I got to drive the Goodyear Blimp for two minutes over downtown Seattle.

Calm before the storm at Mt. St. Helens in 1980

We went to see Harry Truman. He asked me, did I ever see [KING TV anchor] Jean Enersen. And I said I see her from time to time. And he said, “You tell Jean that she can put her slippers under my bed anytime.” Quite a character on the lake. He had this beautiful lodge, and he had these window shades that pulled down, and he had weights on the end of them. While we were there, the window weights were moving back and forth. The ground was moving even then. Anyway, that was the Monday before the Sunday of the eruption. We were there on Monday, and the eruption was the following Sunday.

The good old days at the Seattle Times

When I first came to the Times I looked around the newsroom and here was this room full of talented wonderful people . . . and the old kind of dingy lights overhead, and the green and off-white linoleum floor . . . and some of them even had roll-top desks in the corners. It was a wonderful newsroom – it was right out of Damon Runyon. There were clankety-clank Underwood typewriters all over the place. Everybody smoked. I never smoked, but my clothes reeked of cigarette smoke. And the copy editors would yell, “Boy!” when they wanted a piece of copy brought over. And then there was a wall dividing between the newsroom and the linotype machines in the next room. And there were like 40-plus linotype machines clanking away as copy would be brought over through that wall to the next room where the linotype operators would type the story and set it in type. And then the presses were there, the presses were in the basement of that same building. When I was first there, I didn’t realize that, and every once in awhile I’d feel the floor shake, and it was the thousand-pound rolls of newsprint that were being shifted around and positioned to one of the presses.

How is the veteran photographer when it comes to taking family photos?

I’m better than I used to be. One year, my poor wife kept pestering me about getting pictures of the kids. Finally, she gave up and took them to Penny’s and had Penny’s take pictures.

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Witness to history marks 50 years as Seattle photojournalist