"29 Hands — 15 Artists"

15 Black and White Large Format Photographs by: Mark Kitaoka
On exhibit at: Peninsula Museum of Art, North Gallery, 1777 California Drive, Burlingame, California
When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays, May 18 to July 20, 2014
Artist reception: 1-4 p.m. May 18, 2014
Admission: Free
Gallery information:; 650-692-2101
Artist website:

Read Paul Freeman's interview of Mark Kitaoka in The Daily News.

See Tracy Martin's video profile of milliner Wayne Wichern, one of Kitaoka's subjects.

Mark Kitaoka
Tracy Martin photo
Mark Kitaoka
About the photographer
Mark Kitaoka is a commercial photographer located in the San Francisco Bay Area specializing in all aspects of live performance photography. Mark focuses on capturing high movement, low light, imagery so common to dance and theatrical performances. Publicity sessions, both in studio and on location, round out his theatrical imagery repertoire. His commercial work includes national branding campaigns for PETCO/Pooch Hotel as well as publicity images for Disney Theatrical, along with photographs utilized to attract Broadway producers. Regional credits include promotional material for Target’s theatrical matinee series and images used during the televised Tony Awards in 2011.

Mark’s work is routinely featured in local, regional and national publications, including The Huffington Post, Parade Magazine, and American Theatre Magazine. Many of his live performance photographs have been featured on Broadway as well as internationally. His work has appeared on national television via "The Today Show," as well as in numerous regional markets via the Fox Network.

A few of his photographic collaborations include songwriter/actress Joan Baez, television celebrity and playwright Kathie Lee Gifford, Tony Award -winning directors Casey Nicholaw and John Caird, Tony Award-winning composers Paul Gordon and Larry Grossman, Tony Award-winning actress Judy Kaye, Tony Award-winning producer Harley Metcalf, Tony Award-winning playwright Rupert Holmes, San Francisco Opera’s Resident Conductor Giuseppe Finzi, Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s Conductor Jaap van Zweden, Tony nominated composer/lyricist Andrew Lippa, Pulitzer Prize-finalist Rajiv Joseph, and Luis Bravo of "Forever Tango." Mark's theatre resume includes TheatreWorks, 5th Avenue Theatre Seattle, Broadway by the Bay, San Jose Repertory, Longacre Theatre NYC, Rubicon Theatre Ventura, Meyerson Symphony Center — Dallas Texas, War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco, Teatro ZinZanni Seattle/San Francisco/Costa Mesa, Lesher Center for the Arts, Segerstrom Center for the Arts as well as Disney Theatrical.

For more information:
Mark Kitaoka Photographs

Mark's note
29 Hands — 15 Artists
Photographs by Mark Kitaoka
May 18, 2014

Each photograph is explained in its caption. To see larger versions, click on each image. To buy much larger versions or prints, email Mark Kitaoka at The artist's statement is below the photographs.

Steve Brugge
Name: Steve Brugge Artistic discipline: Poet. Date Taken: August 2013
Steve is the reason the title of the show is 29 rather than 30 hands. He lost his primary hand in an industrial accident and had to relearn how to use his left hand. After much personal turmoil, he found solace in the art of poetry. I wanted natural light for his shot, so we created this image in his backyard just under the stippling of his patio awning. I lit him with fill light using a simple Speedlite housed in a SaberStrip modifier. He is writing about his experience being photographed for this project.
Adrian Blue
Name: Adrian Blue
Artistic discipline: Director/Actor. Date Taken: July 2013
I met Adrian, or "AB" as he likes to be called, during the performance of "The Loudest Man on Earth" at TheatreWorks. He is an actor/director who is deaf. This was the very first time I'd encountered someone who is deaf. I had an almost immediate connection with AB, and it motivated me to learn some American Sign Language in order to communicate with him. For this shot I wanted to highlight his beautiful hands. Using a stage Fresnel light with haze, I backlit him as he made the ASL sign for "Connection."

Pamela L. Gray
Name: Pamela L Grey
Artistic discipline: Theatrical Lighting Designer. Date Taken: August 2013
As a performance production photographer, I get to witness many different lighting designs. Pamela's lighting is truly exquisite and it makes my photographs appear like paintings. During a rehearsal I had admired her hands and asked her if she'd like to participate in the project. For most performances, small stage models are built, but she seldom gets to use them. So I asked to borrow one of the models and asked her to bring along the blueprints she uses to design the lighting. I struggled with how to best compose and light her shot until I decided to climb a ladder and shoot her from above. She had brought along her infamous flashlight and used it to spotlight different parts of the scene. Using a small Speedlite and Saberstrip modifier for fill lighting captured the essence of her art form. She was so excited about actually getting to use a set model I had to remind her that we were under a short timeframe! She just would not stop playing!

Kris Yenney
Name: Kris Yenney
Artistic discipline: Cellist. Date Taken: August 2013
I met Kris back in 2008 during a theatrical performance. I often like to wander over to the orchestra pit in an attempt to shoot some of the musicians. As I peered down into the pit, I was motivated to take some shots of her beautiful hands as she played the cello, one of my all-time favorite instruments. We began a strong friendship after that moment. For this shot I wanted an ethereal look for Kris, to match the sounds that emanate from her instrument. Using a studio strobe with a cone reflector and 10-degree grid from above seemed like the perfect lighting. I also added haze to the air to further enhance the ethereal feeling I was seeking. If you're attending my opening, she is the one playing in the lobby.
Robert Kelley
Name: Robert Kelley
Artistic discipline: TheatreWorks Artistic Director/Director. Date Taken: August 2013
Kelley is the Founder and Artistic Director of TheatreWorks, one of my longest clients. I have an immense respect for his work, and for him as a human. He is a very private individual, and getting him to agree to be photographed was an accomplishment in and of itself! One of the first tasks for any Director is to review a potential script which sometimes includes music. I simply asked him to sit at his desk and flip through a current script. Since I wanted some motion in this image I used a small, bare Speedlite and Second Curtain sync, while dragging the shutter to obtain the motion of turning pages in this image.

Joshua Bergasse
Name: Joshua Bergasse
Artistic discipline: Choreographer. Date Taken: September 2013
Josh and I met while I was doing publicity photography for 5th Avenue Theatre's production of "Second Hand Lions" in Seattle, Washington. He had traveled to Seattle after having completed choreography for the final episode of NBC's TV series "Smash." The 5th's publicist had asked me to create a portrait of Josh. When I entered the room where the session was to take place, I noticed a model skeleton from a previous production that was left in the room. I immediately had the idea to have Josh "dance" with the skeleton. When I explained my concept, he looked at me like I was crazy and said "You want me to do what?" But after he viewed the shot he simply said, "Oh, that's cool!"
I had asked him to bring one of his dancers to the session, so I could photograph their hands as they danced. The lighting for this was one of the most difficult due to his movements. Using a studio strobe and a small parabolic modifier allowed me to capture his hand gestures as they danced.

Eunice Chan
Name: Eunice Chan
Artistic discipline: Painter. Date Taken: August 2013
Eunice is one of the Peninsula Museum of Art resident artists whose hands I noticed immediately during the Open Studios. During our conversation I learned that she is also a practitioner of Kendo, the ancient art of sword manipulation. In order to light her, I found it best to place my Saberstrip modifier just behind her drawing area, where she was currently performing the art of calligraphy.

Leigh Toldi
Name: Leigh Toldi
Artistic discipline: Painter/Illustrator. Date Taken: August 2013
Another Peninsula Museum of Art resident artist, I have known Leigh for many years. Both of our daughters attended the same high school, and while I was photographing some behind-the-scenes imagery, Leigh was assisting in painting the sets. Leigh was the curator for my exhibit "Moments of Humanity" at ArtShare 25 in San Mateo. At the time I created this image of Leigh, she was working on her small illustrations, or what I refer to as "Those drawings that make my hands hurt they're so small!" Lighting and composing this shot was a difficult task, since I wanted to get her famous "while wearing three pairs of glasses" into the shot. A front key light and a rear rim light gave me just what I wanted.

Charles Branklyn
Name: Charles Branklyn
Artistic discipline: Stage Actor. Date Taken: May 2012
Charles and I met during the production of TheatreWork's "Radio Golf." His character portrayal was one that exhibited complete and utter mastery of acting. During one of the scenes he grasps a fedora to his chest and at that moment I noticed his utterly exquisite hands. It's not often I envy someone's hands, but his are truly the exception.

BJ Stevenson
Name: BJ Stevenson
Artistic discipline: Stone Sculptor. Date Taken: August 2013
BANG BANG BANG! "Me and Ruth like being downstairs at the PMA, because we make too much noise for the artists who are upstairs!" Those were some of the first words BJ spoke to me at the Peninsula Museum of Art. As you can imagine, BJ's craft is dusty, with lots of bits flying here and there. So she warned me, "You may want to protect your stuff, because my stones tend to fly all around the place." The space where she works in her studio is just right for what she does, but doesn't leave a lot of room or options for placing lights. So I just clamped my light to her work table and began shooting. With each strike of her mallet I watched as my Speedlite and modifier bounced back and forth. After about five minutes she looked up and asked, "Can I put on some music, the sound of your camera shutter is a bit distracting?" HUH? I thought to myself. How can she hear my shutter when all I can hear is BANG BANG BANG? "But of course" was my reply. After we were done she said "Oh Mark, I don't think your light was working. See, it's off now." I explained to her that the light was a flash and only lit when I pressed the shutter. She then asked, "Did it ever go on?" Amazing that she could hear my shutter above all the banging, but didn't even notice the flashing! And she was absolutely right, stuff does fly everywhere!

Rob Browne
Name: Rob Browne
Artistic discipline: Sculptor. Date Taken: August 2013
Peninsula Museum of Art alum Rob and I have known each other for some time. He and I collaborated on a sculpture he did from one of my photographs of Bianca Sappeto, a Cirque Silk Aerialist. Since Rob was not working on any projects on the day I shot him, I simply had him cover his mouth for the shot. Like most artists he has remarkable hands, which is evident in his shot. Because I wanted this to be a dramatic portrait, I shot him with my little Fuji X100 to kill all ambient light in his studio while using a simple Speedlite.

Ruth Waters
Name: Ruth Waters
Artistic discipline: Wood Sculptor. Date Taken: August 2013
Like BJ, Ruth makes her living with a pound, chip and pound. I am a former wood worker, so Ruth's craft held a special significance for me. Massive pieces of wood surround her in the studio, and as she began to work, I had a bit of difficulty determining how best to light her. I wanted her hands to be the star of the scene, yet I also wanted to textures of the wood to show, yet not overshadow her hands. A single Speedlite in my Saberstrip modifier placed camera left and behind her yielded the feeling I wanted to achieve.

Michelle Cabinian
Name: Michelle Cabinian
Artistic discipline: Stage Actress/Singer/Dancer. Date Taken: August 2013
Now residing in New York City, I first met Michelle during performances for Broadway by the Bay in San Mateo. There is a tenderness to Michelle that juxtaposes the sheer tenacity of her work. She's what is referred to as a triple threat: dancer, singer and actress, all in one. Her hands are like porcelain, and her movements are poetic. I wanted to add another element to her image, so I lit some incense below her hands and asked her to sing while she manipulated the smoke. The organic nature of smoke combined with her graceful hands gave me the mood I wanted for her image. One backlight to illuminate the smoke and give her a rim light, along with one key light to highlight her hands, was just the right combination.

Werner Glinka
Name: Werner Glinka
Artistic discipline: Mixed Media Artist. Date Taken: August 2013
I refer to Werner as Mr. Industrial. Working with sharp metals and poking them into pieces of wood isn't want I consider to be "finger safe." When I first met Werner, he mentioned to me that he loved the photograph of Ruth's hands, and "hoped his hands would look as good as Ruth's!" Not to worry, as I had plans of my own to make his at least as good as the others. Werner works extremely fast, and during the session I noticed that his hands exerted much pressure while he forms and pressed small pieces of metal into his base materials. Because his hands are often contracted during that process, I felt it was much better to photograph his hands while he formed small pieces of wire that attached to the flat pieces of metal. So as I observed him working, I noticed that as he prepares small quantities of his pieces before embarking on pressing them into the base wood, his hands were much more expressive. I set up my small Speedlite to camera left and in front of him to light his hands and pliers in a way to show movement in his hands. And yes, they do look as good as Ruth's!

Wayne Wichern
Name: Wayne Wichern
Artistic discipline: Milliner. Date Taken: August 2013
"Look at all of those wooden heads!" Yes, these were the first words out of my mouth when I first entered Wayne's studio. I had never known a milliner before, and had certainly never seen the tools of his trade. Wayne is the type of guy who is immediately likeable, so it didn't surprise me one bit when he agreed to be part of the project. But of all the folks I photographed at the Peninsula Museum of Art, his work area was the most troublesome. The area that is most dramatic for shooting is the forming area, where he uses a steam iron to help form hats on the wooden blocks. In order to illuminate the steam and still ensure his hands were the star of the shot, I had to literally wedge my light between his table and the metal storage rack that lines the perimeter of his work area. It all worked out, and I was very satisfied with the resulting image. I also take much satisfaction when I appear in his studio with one of my $2 hats and watch his eyes roll...

When I was a young boy, my father instilled in me a very important lesson. "Son, the true measure of people can be seen through their behavior rather than their words. Behavior that backs up their words is the true measure of what they say. Watch what people do, that will tell you much more than what they say."

I've followed his sage advice my entire life and judged my own words against my own behavior. So much of what we "do" is done through our hands. Building, writing, defending ourselves, creating what begins in our minds, caring for those we love, are all accomplished with our hands.

I grew up as one of only three Asians, first in a predominately African American, and then a predominately Caucasian neighborhood. I recall overhearing a parent say to her daughter "He's not bad-looking for an Oriental boy, but he does have gorgeous hands." For several years after that impactful moment, I observed the hands of people to see how my own compared to others.

In the Spring of 2011 I was laid off from my corporate job and decided to pursue commercial performance photography full time. I had moonlighted, part-time, as a performance photographer, since 2007. As a commercial publicity and production performance photographer, I have almost unlimited access to musicians, conductors, writers, actors, set/lighting/costume designers, dancers, directors, choreographers. The list is almost endless, so I enlisted many of these artists into my Hands project.

One of the most wonderful aspects of working with performing artists is the culture of collaboration. I don't consider myself a "fine art photographer," since almost all of my professional work encompasses photographing for commercial purposes. However, I have always believed that personal work is as important as one's commercial portfolio. Having complete artistic control over my own work keeps me sharp and enables me to try things in my own work that is not always possible in commercial work. I will say that much of what I do personally carries over into my commercial work, in terms of lighting and mood creation.

The genesis of "29 Hands — 15 Artists" began during an Open Studios session at the Peninsula Museum of Art. As I watched the artists work, I thought "Wow this is a perfect place to photograph the hands of working artists." So I approached the Museum's curator to ask if I could contact each artist and ask if they'd be interested in having me photograph their hands.

My original plan was to have each artist manipulate an object while blindfolded, and describe the object to me. I thought that photographing each artist as their hands moved would make an interesting study. After just three sessions I decided that a body of work based on my original intent would be utterly boring! So I changed the project and opted to photograph each artist as they worked or performed. And I also decided to expand my subjects to those beyond just those at the Peninsula Museum of Art.

This project contains many more images of hands than appear on these museum walls. Because I wanted to print them in large format, the amount of space just didn't allow for all of them to be displayed, and to those individuals whose hands don't appear in this exhibit, I offer my sincere apologies. It's just the reality of having to make tough choices. As a matter of fact, I view this exhibit as a bit of a fluke.

Midway through the project, two Peninsula Museum of Art artists, Ruth and Werner, each asked me "Mark, what are you going to do with the images once you're done?" I really didn't have any plan, other than to produce a personal book of the work to give to my children. So my response was simply "I don't really know, I may place some on my website and I may produce a book for my kids." When both asked me if I'd consider having an exhibit, I said, "I don't think so, but thank you." When I mentioned it to my partner Tracy, she said, "Are you an idiot? Of course you're having an exhibit!" Much to her frustration, I held my ground, refusing to hang my little photos on a wall in a museum. "It just seems so narcissistic and I am not a fine art photographer!"

Later that month I was photographing Werner, and he again asked if I would consider an exhibit. I gave him my answer: "Nope, but thanks, Werner." Then he asked me if I ever go to galleries. "Of course I do." He asked me why, and I responded, "Well I love to go to get inspiration from what I see or hear." And he said, bluntly, "Well then,quit being selfish and share inspiration with others."

I had no response. And for those who know me well, that's shocking. Werner was right, and he had outmaneuvered my thinking. I never once thought he was rude, simply because, like me, he's very straightforward, and although I appreciated his candor, I'm not accustomed to hearing what I often say, the naked truth. When I told Ruth that I'd be honored to exhibit my work, she simply smiled and said "Oh I'm so glad. I will present your work to the Board to see if we will offer you an exhibit."

Huh? I thought I was being offered an exhibit. Even though I had previously declined their offer, now faced with the possibility of being rejected as an exhibit nominee was worrisome. I kept thinking to myself, "Mark how flippant you are!" Later that month, Ruth approached me with a big smile and simply said, "The Board has approved your exhibit!" And in keeping with my ever-changing mindset, I immediately thought "Oh great, now I have to print, frame and hang!" Oh the ups and downs of being an artist!


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