June 1, 2006
From Here to Utopia
Joel Sternfeld’s engaging look at experimental communities taps into the American quest for the perfect alternative.
The images in photographer Joel Sternfeld’s richly textured, smartly sequenced new book, Sweet Earth: Experimental Utopias in America (Steidl), run the gamut from the rural splendor—or squalor—of a typical commune to the glorious ruins of Paolo Soleri’s Arcosanti. The experience of seeing all 60 together feels both sad and oddly defiant. Their rueful quality is due in part to America’s mixed record with these experiments. But contrary to popular belief, the phenomenon is not a relic of the 1960s. It dates back to at least the 1810s. Sternfeld estimates that 100,000 Americans were participating in utopian experiments by the 1840s. In a way the country itself began as a series of them.
Sternfeld began Sweet Earth while working on a book about violence in America titled On This Site. “At first I thought I would balance those dystopic pictures with photographs of truly utopian places,” Sternfeld writes in the book’s afterword. “But while balance may work in dividing a chocolate bar between two children, it doesn’t necessarily do so in art. I decided to keep On This Site a book about violence. Nevertheless I continued to make pictures of ideal communities.”
Sweet Earth is suffused with empathy, but the gaze isn’t naïve. Some of these experiments have indeed failed, but Sternfeld believes the ideas behind them remain fully contemporary and almost fundamentally American. “I think these people are doing something brave and wonderful,” the photographer says. “I met nothing but terrific people in my travels.” The following are adapted excerpts (both images and text) from the book.