Photography: George Ancona
At Photopreneur, we don’t think that professional photography is for everyone. We wouldn’t dream of telling people to ditch their day job and look to their camera as their sole source of income.
If it’s something that you really want to do, if you have the talent, the knowledge, the business skills and the drive to make it happen, then… well, that’s fantastic.
When it all works, there are few better ways to make a living.
But too often it doesn’t work or it requires a great deal more work for far fewer rewards than new professionals realize. Which is why it’s always so encouraging to come across a photographer who made the jump, chose to shoot full-time and can look back on a career filled with successful images and a large stack of photography books that people love — especially when those people are children.
Photographers Have More Fun
George Ancona started with photography as a child himself, helping in his father’s amateur darkroom. His career though developed on the other side of the industry, as an art director for Esquire, Seventeen Magazine and for advertising agencies. After ten years of laying out other people’s images, he decided to change direction and returned to taking pictures, this time as a professional.
“I was working with some very good photographers,” he explained in a telephone conversation from his New Mexico studio. “They were having more fun than I was sitting in an office.”
It wasn’t an easy decision. George was 30 years old then with three children and a good job. But he remembered how his father had arrived in America from Yucatan, met his mother who was from the same area in Mexico, and had chosen to keep the family in New York to ensure that their children received the best possible opportunities. George’s father wasn’t in a position to take risks but George was, and he felt that this was one opportunity he couldn’t let slip by.
“I wanted to take a chance, be independent,” he said. “I wanted something that would come from me.”
George’s portfolio consisted mostly of pictures of his children but they must have been exceptional because he was soon shooting children’s fashion for Vogue. That alone should have marked a successful enough career change and George soon expanded into film-making, working as a cameraman on documentaries and Sesame Street films. But when Barbara Brenner, a friend who wrote children’s books, thought that photographs would work better than drawings for her next project, George’s career changed again. They teamed up, produced the book together and she suggested that George write the text for his own works in future so that he could take the full share of the royalties.
George has now produced images for 113 photographic children’s books and written the text for about 60 of them, averaging three a year. The books themselves are mostly photo essays accompanied by descriptions and aimed at grade-schoolers. The subjects have ranged from making a piñata and cathedral sculpture to cowboys and Appalachian children.
Photography: George Ancona
The People Change Everything
The process is fairly simple. George produces an idea — a thought, he says, sparked by his own curiosity — and presents it to the publisher. If the publisher agrees, he lays the book out first, planning all 48 pages on 3×5 file cards. The subject suggests the book’s mood and configuration. Now, for example, George is working on a book about flamenco so the book will be vertical.
He then goes out to take the pictures and that’s where everything begins to change.
“I meet people and they tell me things,” he says. “I try to focus on one person who will take me through the experience and I’ll try to show the child from a different culture… I might forget the book but I’ll always remember the people.”
Each book requires 50 images and George will shoot 50 rolls of film to capture enough material. He doesn’t shoot digitally yet, mostly because the publisher doesn’t demand it and all of his equipment is analog, but he is considering it.
Considering the sort of changes that George has made in his career, that would be a relatively small one.
It might be easy to say that the moral of George’s story is to follow the dream and take your chances. But that might be a little simplistic. George, after all, had worked with photographers before he became a photographer himself and he knew the industry. More importantly, he found a niche that worked, that had a market, that he was good at, and — most importantly of all — that he enjoyed. Thirty-three years after writing his first book, he’s still working, still showing his readers the world through the eyes of other children and still finding it immensely satisfying.
“I told my friends I retired when I was 30,” he says.