Laura Morton – The Social Stage

Laura Morton

The Social Stage


San Francisco, California has a thriving culture of what is often referred to as high society. This small group of wealthy people attends numerous glamorous social events with each other throughout the year to socialize while financially supporting local cultural institutions and other charity organizations.

These elaborate events give participants a chance to dress up, mingle with one another and generally see and be seen on the social stage. While some donors prefer to keep a low profile, those who attend the parties generally do so to put themselves on display and be part of the scene. Such an outright display of wealth seems ostentatious to many outsiders, but the cultural institutions and other charity organizations in the city rely on the patronage of these donors for the majority of their funding. The goal of the parties is to keep patrons happy and make them feel like their status as a donor makes them part of a special community so that they’ll continue to give large sums of money.



When I first came across this world I was fascinated by the way these events bring to the surface several aspects of human nature that I was interested in exploring and I began to document how people behaved when they put themselves on display in this public arena. I’ve found the parties to be a place where feelings of pride, ambition, power, envy and anxiety are on full display.

Documenting this world also provides a glimpse into the lifestyle and personality of a certain group of America’s privileged upper class. When the recent economic crisis worsened what was already a widening gap between the wealthiest individuals in the world and everyone else, I became increasingly interested in examining wealth and the effect it has on the individuals who have it. I plan to continue photographing not only in San Francisco, but also hope to document this community in other parts of the country and explore of what this type of wealth looks like across America.




Laura Morton, born in 1984, is a freelance photojournalist currently based in San Francisco, California. She grew up in Maryland and then attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Laura graduated in 2006 with a degree in Political Science and Journalism. After completing photography internships with The Seattle Times and San Francisco Chronicle, Laura started her freelance career in San Francisco where she continued to work as a regular contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle. Some of her other freelance clients have included The Wall Street Journal, Corbis Images and The Los Angeles Times. Laura’s project ‘The Social Stage’ was awarded in the 2012 PDN Photo Annual and was a winner of the 2013 Hearst 8 X 10 Photography Biennial. In 2012, she was selected for a scholarship masterclass organized by Look3 Festival of the Photograph with photographer Bruce Gilden. Laura is also a winner of the 2013 Magenta Foundation’s Flash Forward Emerging Photographers exchange.


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12 Responses to “Laura Morton – The Social Stage”

  • For me, it seemed like too many ‘social snaps’ put together to tell the story. I felt like I wanted something a bit grittier, not just images of wealthy people socialising. Perhaps some individual portraits shot in the same full frontal flash style? An insight into their home life maybe?
    I just found something lacking.
    Anyway, congrats on being published here at least!

  • There are some fantastic shots in here, particularly the bow tie – finger one. However, I think this could have been accomplished with a much tighter edit, meaning less images. Without the variation Jonathan VDK asks for above we are left with too many images that are similar looking and that dilutes the impact for me. As I went through the series it started to feel like a chore by the end, instead of the pleasure it started out as.

    If you desire a longer series I would seriously consider Jonathan’s advice. Otherwise, less is more.

  • I very much like what the photographer is trying to do here but share the same concern about the repetition as the commenters above. I, however, suspect that a good variety could be achieved without trying to make it something it’s not. It’s repetitious as much or more because almost all of the shots are framed the same way as it is because the subjects are similar. I suspect the photographer would do well to step back on a lot of those shots and let the camera take in more of the surroundings (ostentatious or otherwise). And perhaps try to get more of the point of view of the people working the event.

    But overall, hallelujah. Thanks for seeing the bigger picture and showing us something we don’t often see in a subversive context. The U.S. needs to tax those sociopaths to pay for societal necessities rather than grovel, beg, and fluff them.

  • Sociopaths, mw? Monsters. I see only monsters coming out from this shots. Great job, Laura.

  • First, I admire the courage and toughness of the photographer, Laura Morton.

    Second, the images are all good, each and every one.

    Third, even so, I kind of feel like I saw one statement, repeated 24 times.

  • I love this series. I shared the feelings above yesterday morning on first glance, but the more I go through the essay, the more I come to appreciate Morton’s nuanced imagery; Laura could frame a shot masterfully in her sleep, I think. The essay isn’t subversive to me at all; unlike Fitzgerald’s notion, I don’t think the rich are any different from you and I. These people are after all, patrons of the arts, so I’d like to treat them with a bit of respect, if not reverence.

    Yes, it is a bit long – the coulda-woulda-shoulda hypothetical edit is a no-win comment that has been discussed here before – but too long by only a couple of shots. The first image, and the group photo with Wintour, are superb. Looking at it yesterday I thought Morton had been influenced by Larry Fink and Bruce Gilden; upon reading her biographical information, I realize I am at least half right. :)

    It’s the thinking behind the capture that I appreciate. The length of time it takes to make a shot, and the creative thinking that goes with it, is something I find fascinating. Morton composes in such a way that her thinking is evident, yet at a speed in which her subjects are caught unaware, or are photographed in a comfortable and respectful manner such that her presence is fully accepted, allowing her subjects to be fully engaged with one another instead.

    I believe that if some more thinking had been made, then Laura could have gone even closer and made intimate portraits in vertical mode. Her website shows a penchant for the landscape configuration favoured by so many photographers, but I can’t help thinking the images of Belinda Barry, both Pelosi’s, Getty and Tamagni would have stood more powerful had the camera been rotated. (Ah, now I’m hypothesizing – my apologies…)

    The notion of photographing high society is an ambitious one. Done correctly, portraying the lives of the powerful, and those in a decision-making position that affects the rest of society, and affects much of the rest of the world, might just be the answer to the questions raised when we see the images of what their decisions have wrought. Best of luck to Laura Morton.

  • Congratulations Laura, great stuff.
    Jeff, thanks for your take. I agree with most everything you said. Although folks hate comparisons, Fink springs immediately to mind here, and to a lesser degree Gilden, and even Arbus and Weegee. Direct on camera flash without dragging the shutter has that “look”, a bit brutal, background receding, subject frozen and spot-lit. I usually associate this technique with “cheap shots”, where the photographers intent is to portray people in an un-flattering way. Laura’s approach however is more sympathetic and intimate. While still poking a little fun, it brings the subjects down to our level, yes, they are just ordinary people having a little fun. This is refreshing.

    Awesome stuff on Laura’s site by the way. There is a longer edit of this series there with some great shots not seen here. While I agree there is not a huge variety in this series, I don’t mind. Yes, you could stop at one photo. However each photo gives me something new. These are fun.

  • I would to amend my second line above to change the word “good” to “superb.”

    After reading Jeff and Gordon’s comments I took another look. I concluded I probably should not have been making comments yesterday, or today either, for that matter, as I suffered a minor but painful injury a week ago Friday in an accident on a boat in the Beaufort Sea and have not been able to sleep for more than 15 or 20 minutes straight since. The world is becoming a strange place and I am a little grumpy.

    So, after a second review, on the surface, I think my statement was correct, but beneath the surface, as Jeff says, there are so many nuances going on that new stories can be found in each image.

  • Rare that I disagree much with Hladun, and of course I may be wrong, but from both the statement and the attitude I see expressed in the photos, this is not a reverent portrait of the rich and ostentatious. It is a solid ethical statement consistent with what the Jesus character in the Bible taught about public prayer and alms giving; namely that those who make an ostentatious public show of charity are hypocrites and their struttings count for nothing in the god character’s eyes.

    And I find it a bit scary on at least two levels. One, that someone like Hladun would actually revere these people as a class. To say think that the super wealthy are just like anyone else is simply crazy. Many members of any group, be they felons in prisons, nurses, veterans, the super rich, whatever, adopt a kind of group think consistent with their common experiences. For the wealthy, this group think is one of privilege and superiority. Of course not every individual in the group shares the general characteristics and there are plenty of wealthy people who are not monsters or sociopaths, but as a group they are destroying the world and impoverishing the masses. There is nothing to revere about them. Maybe it’s wrong to abhor but there’s certainly good reason to fear, and from a democratic standpoint, regulate. And secondly, I hardly find it heart warming to see Nancy Pelosi, one of the most powerful politicians in the U.S., getting all dressed up and kowtowing to those sociopaths.

    And really, what did someone named Getty accomplish in this life other than being born lucky? I read recently that the heirs to the Walmart fortune have as much wealth as the bottom 40 percent of Americans, or to put it crassly, six people have as much as 125 million. Just by being born. And by going to these galas and throwing a few peanuts to make the Nancy Pelosi’s of out world dance, they grow their fortunes exponentially. It would be so much better on every level to just tax the wealthy like everybody else and just pay for the arts and social services instead of having to put on the kind of fluff spectacles documented in this work.

  • I like the pictures very much for their design, the closeness they show and so on.
    However, I am not interested in the events, or the people being shown.

  • Yikes, Michael…I see that I made a mighty slip of the pen. It shouldn’t have been an “if”, but a “but”. Even an “and” would have been more appropriate. My apologies.

    In the era of the Medici, when that family controlled both Church and State, and when the notion of art patronage first arrived (under Medici control) the idea was to put more bums in the pews under painted cathedral domes. It was the Medici way of giving guilt charity to the citizens and hopefully gaining entry to heaven.

    What Morton’s subjects’ intentions are with respect to their patronage is anyone’s guess. North-American middle class is being destroyed; there are ever increasing numbers of rich and poor. Election financing is becoming sinful in its excess. Maybe the two factors are connected; if Laura Morton can gain a foothold into that society, then maybe she can discover the answers.

    We’ve been asking the questions for decades – and for generations – to the point of apathy. That’s not good enough, and it puzzles me to read that for so many photographers it’s sufficient to just present images that question…but don’t uncover answers. I don’t know what the limit of photography is, or how far investigative photojournalism can reach, but I’d like to see if it is capable of discovering the cause as easily as it is of witnessing the effect. I don’t need to see twenty different photo-essays of what happened in Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring, but I’d like to know who the puppet masters were, and how they created the convergence of events that led to its eruption.

    Why can’t photography just do more?

  • Michael,
    it’s easy to project our feelings about the super rich, the growing income disparity, political manipulation on these photos and see strutting hypocrites. But if you remove the context of who they are, you could find similar posturing and moments in almost any social gathering. Think of any wedding you’ve ever been to.
    I have many of the same feelings about the obscenely wealthy, but do not find these photographs judgemental. Like I said, just a bunch of folks having a few drinks, and behaving pretty much like any other group of people.

    As far as group think, absolutely. Group think occurs in all strata. The other end of the scale are those who feel completely oppressed and think they have no control over their lives. Everything is some-one else’s fault. The American public in general has a group think which assumes superiority and privilege compared to the rest of the world. The third world views the average suburban American family as over the top wealthy.

    In any case, good photographs, which invite discussion.


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