Visions of Utopia

Suburban America proves to be a fruitful place for photographer Marta Giaccone, who scratches beneath the surface of society in her quest for utopia.

© Marta Giaccone, from the series, Systems of Harmony

Systems of Harmony is my personal exploration of contemporary USA,” says Italian photographer Marta Giaccone. “Thanks to the former ‘utopian’ communities, I was able to find a key to guide me across suburban America - something I’d wanted to do for some time.”

The utopian communities Giaccone refers to were established across the USA in the 19th century. These settlements were religious or secular, but the common thread running through them was an emphasis on communal living, with inhabitants championing a cooperative way of life. Driven by curiosity, Giaccone decided to embark on a trip through America to see what these places look like today.

“It all started from three places called Utopia: in Queens, New York City; Ohio; and Texas,” explains Giaccone who spent three months in 2016 couch-surfing and travelling by coach while making the work. “These places were founded by different people under very different circumstances. I thought how surreal it would be to live in a place by that name!”

© Marta Giaccone, from the series, Systems of Harmony

Widening her search, Giaccone found former utopian communities with other names and created a map outlining her journey - from New York City to New England, Upstate NY, down to Ohio and Indiana, then up to Wisconsin, circumnavigating Lake Michigan, before heading down again through Iowa, Missouri and Tennessee to reach Texas. Her return journey took her through Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, Maryland and Pennsylvania.

The photographs Giaccone took are of the people she stayed with, or met through her hosts, and sometimes she photographed strangers in the street, in diners, or on the bus after spending just a few minutes with them.

“This [way of shooting] was new to me as I generally structure my projects around documenting a place or group of people […] over a really long time,” says the Italian photographer. “I have slowly learnt to appreciate brief encounters… I spent my days walking mainly aimlessly, only stopping if I saw something or someone that caught my attention. Usually when I stopped someone they would ask me what I was doing in their tiny town all the way from Italy, and when I replied I was searching for utopia their faces would brighten up… I had no idea what I would come across, I was completely open to chance.”

© Marta Giaccone, from the series, Systems of Harmony

Gradually Giaccone began to construct the body of work that would become Systems of Harmony, which comprises landscapes and portraits. She has plans to make another trip to the States to shoot more for the project, which will be published in the near future. Her photographs aren’t meant to be critical of American society, she says, but rather she hopes they offer a portrait of a country at a very critical moment in its history. “This is the first time I’ve shot landscapes… I wanted to give a wider view as well as context for my portraits. I also wanted to acknowledge the importance of landscape in the history of American photography… By chasing utopia - this land too perfect to exist - I have been an observer of the everyday lives of normal people.”

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Marta Giaccone is an Italian documentary photographer whose work focuses on issues related to family and youth. To learn more about Marta's work, visit her PHmuseum profile.

Gemma Padley is a freelance writer and editor on photography, based in the UK.

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