Mexican American children’s book author, photographer, and filmmaker George Ancona, widely acclaimed for his crisp slice-of-life photo essays introducing children to new experiences or cultures, or depicting laborers doing the everyday work in a community, died on January 1 at his home in Santa Fe. He was 91.
Ancona was born December 4, 1929 and grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., where some of his earliest memories—and jobs—were connected to the Steeplechase Amusement Park in Coney Island. In his website biography, Ancona recalled assisting his father, an amateur photographer, as he developed film in the bathroom darkroom and enjoying “fabulous Mexican meals” cooked by his mother. By age 12, one of Ancona’s first jobs was at the amusement park’s haunted house.
In junior high, Ancona wrote in his bio, he developed an appreciation for the beauty of type while taking a sign painting class and he learned to paint signs for the Coney Island rides. When he entered high school, his passion for art and design was encouraged by graphic arts teacher Leon Friend, who organized an “Art Squad” of students who met after school to “design, paint, and draw for competitions.” Also during high school, Ancona took Saturday classes at the Brooklyn Museum Art School where he met renowned Mexican painter Rufino Tamayo and was able to show the artist his portfolio. “Immediately after graduation,” Ancona recalled, he accepted Tamayo’s invitation to visit him in Mexico City, and embarked on the five-day bus trip. South of the U.S. border Ancona studied art tuition-free at the Academia de San Carlos (arranged by Tamayo) for several months and eventually met his extended family in Yucatan for the first time.
By 1950 Ancona had returned to New York and worked as a member of the promotions team at the New York Times while studying at the Art Students League and Cooper Union at night. He then spent the next decade working in a series of staff designer and art director positions including stints at Esquire and Seventeen magazines and at several large advertising firms. These 10 years proved pivotal in many other ways as well, as Ancona married Patricia Apatow and welcomed three children, and also began developing his photography skills. In 1961 he quit corporate life and became a freelance photographer and cinematographer.
Ancona saw early success with publishing photos for such clients as Children’s Vogue, Charles Jourdan, and Marlboro. He shot documentaries as well as short films for Sesame Street and the children’s TV series Big Blue Marble, work that took him around the globe. Over this same period, from 1962 to 1970, Ancona and his family lived within the Gate Hill Cooperative in Stony Point, N.Y., home to such artists, writers, and filmmakers as John Cage, David Tudor, and Stan Vanderbeek. Ancona was divorced in 1966 and married Brazilian journalist Helga Von Sydow in 1968, with whom he had three children.
Photography proved Ancona’s entrée to the children’s book world when his friend, author Barbara Brenner, asked him to illustrate some of her work. The pair collaborated on the books A Snake-Lover’s Diary (Young Scott Books, 1970); Faces (Dutton, 1970) and Bodies (Dutton, 1973). Other collaborators included Remy Charlip and Mary Beth Miller, authors of the Handtalk series that began with Handtalk: An ABC of Finger Spelling and Sign Language (Parents’ Magazine Press, 1974). Brenner’s editor then suggested he try to write his own text to accompany his photographs. The first book he both wrote and illustrated was Monsters on Wheels (Dutton, 1974), which featured working machines and vehicles and was inspired by his interest in construction.
A prolific era followed with Ancona often producing multiple photo-essay picture books every year into the early 2000s. Ancona and his family left New York for Santa Fe in 1989 and enjoyed immersing themselves in the city’s culture and Spanish roots. Beginning in the 1990s, Ancona largely focused on creating books exploring Latino culture, including Ricardo’s Day/El dia de Ricardo (Scholastic, 1995); Barrio: José’s Neighborhood (Harcourt, 1998), a Pura Belpré Honor Book; and Cuban Kids (Marshall Cavendish, 2000), which was banned from the Miami-Dade Public Schools in 2006 for a photo depicting “a child with a rifle and children saluting the Cuban flag with the caption, ‘We will be like Che!’ ”
In all, Ancona published more than 100 books for young readers. “In my way I try to do what my father did when he would take me by the hand and walk the docks of Brooklyn looking up at the huge black hulls of freighters that came from all over the world,” he wrote in his website biography, reflecting on his creative approach. “It made me aware that there are places far away that someday I would go to and get to know the people there. It opened up the world to me. I try to do this with my books.”
Ancona is survived by his wife and children as well as four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.