Asked what it was like to be a photojournalist for LIFE magazine during its 1960s heyday, Bob Gomel does not hesitate to answer. “It was the mecca,” he says with a combination of excitement and nostalgia.
“In my wildest dreams, I thought about things like that, and it never really occurred to me that I would ever become part of that wonderful, elitist group of photographers,” the renowned photog tells SFR. “There was no place higher that you could aspire to.”
Gomel’s iconic images have stood both the tests of time and digital media: a meta Malcolm X photographing then Cassius Clay inside a Miami diner; JFK examining the first space capsule; candid shots of the Beatles relaxing the day prior to their career-defining Ed Sullivan Show appearance.
“It’s a trip down memory lane,” he says of the images he selected for LIFE in the 1960s, his forthcoming exhibit at Monroe Gallery. “Everybody realizes now, retrospectively, that the people that we photographed all became iconic, [but] we had no idea of their value historically when we were doing it.”
“It’s amazing to me how 50-years-ago images can be still relevant today,” Gomel, who describes his current schedule as still “busy as can be,” continues.
Not bad for a kid from the Bronx who was first captivated by photography at age 10, after admiring a picture his science teacher had shot and hung inside the classroom.
“[It] was a beautiful sepia-toned print of a cobblestone street with a manhole cover in the middle, and a pigeon on it,” he recalls. “I looked at that thing and thought, ‘My God, that’s just beautiful,’ and I was mesmerized.”
Curious, he joined the “little photo club” at his public school, and his lifetime affair with still images began.
“I got hooked!” he says.
The one thing missing in the equation was convincing his parents to fork over the then-whopping $83.75 to purchase his dream instrument, a Ciro-flex camera.
“It was the first post-World War II camera made in America,” he points out.
His parents didn’t budge, so the young Gomel started a bike route delivering groceries to earn the dough.
“I remember once, in the middle of the winter, driving up the snowy hills with that bike, the front wheel basket loaded, and I slipped and fell over,” Gomel reminisces. “A dozen eggs cracked and so, not knowing what to do, I went home and replaced the broken eggs with ones from my mother’s refrigerator and continued to deliver that order,” he laughs. “It’s really what sticks in your mind [after] all these many years.”
He took over a closet in his family home and turned it into a makeshift darkroom.
“It was a cheap imitation of the German Rolleiflex, but I cut my teeth on that Ciro-flex,” he says of his first camera, adding that because there was no real formal training available, he mastered his craft based on “trial and error.”
Focused, he would later land his dream job at LIFE, where he became a trailblazer implementing now-standard maneuvers like double exposure and camera rigging—like when he took a groundbreaking aerial shot of the casket containing the body of President Dwight D Eisenhower in the US Capitol’s rotunda from 280 feet above ground.
“If you can envision a picture and you haven’t got any immediate idea of how to do it, you seek out ways,” he explains.
His visit to Santa Fe, it turns out, will be something of a class reunion, as both former LIFE managing editor Dick Stolley and former reporter Hal Wingo—the twosome that would later found People magazine—live in town.
“I don’t get a chance to see many of my colleagues because the TIME-LIFE alumni association basically orients interests and activities around New York City—luncheons and what have you,” Gomel, who is now Houston-based, says. “It’s not practical for me to be able to join them on those occasions.”
With one foot in the retirement door and the other still active in sporadic travel photography, Gomel says, he often gets the itch to immerse himself in photojournalism once more. One event that cemented this, he says, was a trip to New York in 2001. After several delays, he flew back home the evening of Sept. 10.
“I was sound asleep the following morning when my friend called me something around 7:30 am and said, ‘Turn on your television set,’” he says. “When I saw what was going on, I realized I was right there a few hours before, and God—it was killing me not to have been able to be a part of that event and that I had just missed it. So the answer to your question, do I miss it? You bet.”