Meet Mary Giancoli: Queens Mom, Photographer, and Kids’ Photo Teacher

Queens photographer Mary Giancoli at a recent exhibition with selections from her “Cuetzalan” series of photos printed and mounted on solid bamboo. © Cristian Peña |

Queens photographer Mary Giancoli at a recent exhibition with selections from her “Cuetzalan” series of photos printed and mounted on solid bamboo. © Cristian Peña |

Rich with colors, contrast, and real life, the work of documentary-style photographer Mary Teresa Giancoli evokes a powerful connection to her subject matter. With an MFA in photography from Hunter College, this Queens-based mom and photographer has explored everything from the daily lives and traditions of women in Mexico to the haunting beauty of the Mediterranean Sea surrounding Sicily. Giancoli’s current work is focused on black-and-white images of the ocean; a documentary project on Mexican communities in the United States and in Mexico; and photographing the waterfront in Queens. Plus, she is sharing her love of photography with kids through several workshops for children, with one coming up this August.

Originally from Berkeley, California, Giancoli has lived from Los Angeles to England to Italy and several places in between. After a brief stint in Queens in the late 1980’s, Giancoli returned to the borough in 1999, where she has been ever since. She lives with her husband, professional photographer and artist Cristian Peña, and her 10-year-old daughter, a budding photographer.

Recently, her work was featured in one of the large glass display cases at the Falchi Building in Long Island City in “In My Borough,” a show curated by Local Project exploring everyday movement through a city of diversity. Giancoli worked with Jorge Posada on a collaborative installation and invited students from a sociology class at nearby LaGuardia Community College to add found objects to their installation. Giancoli’s “Italian Waters, ” a print series of Sicily and the ocean, recently was displayed at Manducati’s Rustica, an Italian restaurant in Long Island City.

From August 25 to 29, Giancoli will be running a week-long photo workshop for kids ages seven to 12 at her studio at Studio 34 in Long Island City. She will show the students new techniques with film cameras and take them to photograph along Queen’s waterfront, among other sites. Also in August, Giancoli’s work will be on display at the Studio 34 Gallery.

Queens Mamas caught up with Giancoli to find out more about her photography and her August photography workshop for kids.

What and who inspires you as a photographer?
I am inspired by sights and smells and by walking and looking. In my work, I am looking for love in the simple things people do in their daily rituals and for others, or spontaneous moments.

I look back to the work of photographers Tina Modotti and Manuel Alvarez Bravo, both masters of Mexican photography; master Edward Weston’s landscapes and photos of people from the West coast; Ferdinando Scianna’s work in Sicily; and, more recently, the color work of Sheila Metzner.

Two contestants in Huipil competition in front of St. Francis of Assisi, Cuetzalan, Puebla, Mexico. © Mary Teresa Giancoli

Two contestants in Huipil competition in front of St. Francis of Assisi, Cuetzalan, Puebla, Mexico. © Mary Teresa Giancoli

What inspired your current work on Mexican communities and images of the ocean?
Tina Modotti and Edward Weston lived and worked in Mexico in the 1920s. Tina’s revolutionary spirit and platinum prints of flowers and working people led me to Mexico and to platinum printing, a type of contact printing using developers directly on paper.

Weston’s forms and landscapes of the West Coast are stunning, and perhaps a marker for looking at the light and where the sea meets the sky for my work on “Waves,” from Bolinas, California, to Long Beach, Washington, or Trapani, Sicily.

Ferdinado Scianna’s striking work on religious processions and the way he took fashion photography onto the streets give me pause.

What is your background teaching photography to kids?
I love photography and want to share that with kids. Since I photograph outside, my classes are held outdoors at scenic areas and I combine it with a museum visit and classroom or darkroom work to complete a creative project. Kids have an unusual, poetic way of looking at the world.

Before my daughter was born, I taught at ICP and Hostos Community College, and 10 years later I’m still teaching, taking pictures, and editing pictures for books, magazines, and digital apps.

I work with More Art and taught two classes for middle students at Clinton School for Writers and Artists using digital cameras to photograph the High Line. And I just did a photo camp at the Allen-Stevenson School in Manhattan with fifth- and sixth-grade boys. I took the boys out to the Conservatory Garden with cameras and learned some darkroom techniques.

Last year, I set up a one week photo camp in August in Queens. Sofia Geier [of Unity Stage] and Bonita Kline [of Sunnyside Artworks], who both run camps in Sunnyside, were kind to let their students know about the camp. I was looking for kids ages six to 10 who wanted to try photography and explore outside for a week in summer. Last year, the kids took pics with disposable film cameras and a Holga camera, a plastic camera that takes medium-roll film. Our excursions included the waterfront in Long Island City, McCarren Park in Williamsburg, going to a photography and video exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and a visit to Studio 34, where I have my studio.

The summer camp in 2013 went well, so kids want to come back, thankfully! This summer, the camp is August 25 to 29, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., in my studio in Long Island City, so kids [ages seven to 12] from all over Queens are welcome to try some new techniques with film cameras, and photograph along Queen’s beautiful waterfront, among other sites.

Why is photography important for kids to learn?
I think photography is both technical and artistic. There are many low-tech ways of doing photography that are fun for kids: Holga cameras, using paint on developers to make cyanotype prints, disposable cameras. I use film in many of my classes, but also digital to be current.

Photography helps kids frame an image, use light, and see in a new way. Also, I encourage kids to write about their work.

How can parents encourage their kids as photographers?
Parents can encourage their kids as photographers by letting them run free with a camera, asking them to observe, and let them make discoveries.

What is your take on the art scene in Queens?
The art scene in Queens is collaborative and so many artists have studios here. Since Queens is the most diverse area of the country, it is an exciting place to meet and learn from artists from all over the world.

I like to see work by artists and the art featured at Socrates Sculpture Park, Local Project, Jeffrey Leder Gallery, Flux Factory, Emily Fisher Landau, Dorsky Gallery, Space Gallery, Flushing Town Hall, and the Queens Museum. I also like to visit artists in their studios to see how they work and the tools they use. Long Island City is a great place to do that.

The LIC Arts Open just ended on May 18th, and it was a great opportunity to see artists at work in their studios and many pop-up shows at restaurants and businesses.

How could people support the arts in Queens?
There are many ways. Join or follow what the Queens Council on the Arts is doing because QCA supports visual and performing artists, and they find innovative ways of putting artists together and connecting multi-generational artists. Visit an artist in her studio. Buy an original work of art by a local artist.

Long Island City Artists is another group that provides networking opportunities for artists and group exhibitions throughout the year, and it relies on volunteers to carry out its mission.

To sign your child up for Giancoli’s photo workshop in August, email her at

Ellen Sturm Niz is an editor and writer parenting, living, and working in Jackson Heights, Queens. Follow her on TwitterPinterestTumblr, and Google+.