A subtle sense of irony and a knack for telling detail allows Mark Peterson to illustrate in “Acts of Charity” the concept of noblesse oblige and the idea that it takes money to make money as they co-exist in the high-powered world of upscale giving. Set amid the playground of the rich and famous, Peterson’s photographs provide a peek at how the other half gives.

‘Acts of Charity’ by Mark Peterson

At times, Peterson appears as if he moves invisibly among the well-heeled celebrity donors, depicting them in various natural, if awkward states. One image shows us a blazer-clad, khaki-wearing man hoisting a woman in tennis whites over his shoulder while walking beside a line of luxury automobiles.

Another photo features a taxidermied red fox with a top hat jauntily perched on its head as it stands upon a banquet table — uncharitably, perhaps, for the small mammal. (One hopes it wasn’t from the same humane society benefit event shown on a previous page.)

Other times, Peterson manages to zero in on a delicate ballet of gliteratti, awash in limelight and draped in couture, all for the benefit of those less fortunate than they. Absurd, theatrical and telling, the photographs exist as social commentary

What makes all this fascinating, of course, likely has something to do with the novelty of seeing upper-crust society scarfing down cocktail weiners, horsing around irrespective of who may be watching and fulfilling one’s voyeuristic tendencies within the parameters of charitable giving.

There are plenty of celebrities here — from rapper and hip-hop producer Jay-Z to uberfashionista Vogue editor Anna Wintour, from onetime talk-show host Rosie O’Donnell to heiress and socialite Brooke Astor — but this isn’t quite a paparazzi book. It’s more of a social study.

An anthropology professor of mine at Queens College used to revel in telling students how he ran against the grain of his peers, choosing to study the lifestyles of the ultra-rich instead of primitive cultures, ensconced in a remote rainforest. “They had the best booze, the best parties,” he would say.

Here, at long last, it’s clear to see what he was talking about. [2005.01]

From ‘Acts of Charity’ by Mark Peterson

Book: ‘Acts of Charity‘ by Mark Peterson (introduction by Philip Weiss), powerHouse books, 160 pages, hardcover. More info.