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The search for heaven on earth

Joel Sternfeld's photographs document efforts to create Utopian communities throughout the United States.

It is a dream we have all cherished at least fleetingly: the hope of finding a place in this world in which to live more simply, surrounded by beauty and like-minded people.

Photographer Joel Sternfeld's new book Sweet Earth: Experimental Utopias in America explores the past and present of these idealized communities across the United States.

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Sternfeld's photographs highlight the land on which these foundations for bliss were built while the accompanying text lends insight into the people whose vision led to their creation.

And the two have much in common. Like the would-be creators of these Utopias, the photographs are beautiful and appear simple at first glance – only to reveal a rich complexity when studied further.

The Utopian ideal has been pursued for centuries around the globe. In the US, interest in communal living has waxed and waned over the course of two centuries. Sternfeld's photographs and text profile some failed communities, allowing the viewer to reconstruct images of those places in their prime.

It is easy, for instance, to visualize the excitement of the artist-founders of Drop City (a communal living project attempted in Trinidad, Colo., in 1961), as they crafted their multicolored dome dwellings out of old car hoods.

But Sternfeld also visits a number of flourishing contemporary Utopias, such as 11 homes newly constructed by artists at Surreal Estates in Sacramento, Calif., a project that demonstrates the power of people coming together to literally build their own community.

One of the strengths of this book is Sternfeld's willingness to examine the idea of Utopia in a broader context. In a photograph of rooftop gardens in Chicago, the green vegetation glows, creating a sharp contrast to the nearby steel and brick and serving as a vivid reminder that changing the world doesn't have to mean escaping the city.

Many of Sternfeld's photographs focus on landscape but there are also compelling portraits of people. A photograph of Moira, dubbed "Queen of the Prom" at the Range Nightclub in Slab City, Calif., (a community of squatters living on an abandoned Navy base), sitting in an old wedding dress clutching a rose with just a hint of a smile, is beautiful. And an image of four members of Springtree Commune in Virginia reflects the close bonds formed over years of living together.

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"Sweet Earth" shows us there are places of hope and heart, and people still eager to find their Utopia as they embrace the rich legacy of communalism in the US.

Andy Nelson is a Monitor staff photographer.