Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Inspiration by the Numbers

Fifty Great Escapes: A Global Guide to Creativity

by Jonathan LeePrestel, 2006
192 pages, paperback
250 color illustrations, $29.95

Reviewed by Jain Lemos

Jonathan Lee’s Fifty Great Escapes: A Global Guide to Creativity, from German publisher Prestel, is an impressively researched photo book that attempts to inspire readers by pinpointing exactly where fifty celebrated artists dashed off to in order to summon a masterpiece or two. In short, this book’s goal is to explore the concept of how sense of place affects creativity, which is in an important topic in the creative fields.

Lee has approached his concept thoughtfully, though hardly profoundly, and as a result Fifty Great Escapes has enough variety of locations and artists that many art-loving readers will find it enjoyable, but few will find it as remotely inspiring as the places listed in the book. Lee chooses his subjects from a grab-bag of artistic greats, with no apparent clear connection among them. He includes writers, photographers, composers, philosophers, filmmakers, and sculptors. He then probes the life of each artist to reveal the surreptitious places that aroused their innermost creative sparks.

While on a train ride, Claude Monet sees a picturesque village along the banks of the Seine River. Soon enough, he takes a house there, using it for the basis of a thirty-year study in gardens. Not surprisingly, Lee warns about the crowds at the Monet house and gardens in France. A Left Bank café in Paris is the hangout of Jean-Paul Sarte that inspired this writer and existential philosopher. Lee admits that today the café is a tourist trap, but he maintains the owners have kept the initial charm that drew the intellectual crowd decades ago. He credits Juwangsan National Park as the inspiration for South Korean filmmaker Kim Ki-duk. Pleading with the government for months to use the location, Ki-duk uses Jusan Reservoir, the park’s artificial lake, to shoot the entire film. It’s hard to determine if the lake was truly inspirational or just convenient for his production crew.

One problem with Fifty Great Escapes is that Lee often seems to stretch his underlying concept to round out the book in order to satisfy the “global” aspect of the subtitle. For example, just because Jorge Luis Borges frequented Café Tortoni in Buenos Aires, it’s unclear if the great Argentine scribe of fiction was truly inspired by the place or if he just liked one of the waitresses who worked there. The spreads about longboard surfing photographer LeRoy Grannis in Hermosa Beach and Robert Capa’s tenure in France are particularly interesting for those of us working in photography. Still, these locations seem too obvious to be unusually inspirational. Lee might have painted himself into a corner trying to include a variety of locals.

Rightly so, Lee gives special thanks in his acknowledgment to picture researcher, Natalie Buchholz, “for her perseverance.” Since the 250 photographs are from so many different sources, she had a monumental job of securing permissions plus finding portraits of each artist, not to mention submitting appropriate images of the locations Lee is touting. While the photo research is impressive, Fifty Great Escapes suffers from a common problem with books that use numerous sources for imagery: lack of continuity in style. While some of the book’s visuals are quite nice, as a whole they end up being a disparate hodgepodge, and frankly, some of the images are unexciting and simply sub par technically. In addition, Buchholz provides several less-than-stunning generic photos from public institutions, presumably because of a limited budget.

Unlike the hit handbook, 1000 Places to See Before You Die by Patricia Schultz (Workman, 2003), part of the problem with Fifty Great Escapes is that its title does not provide the author with a clear or compelling enough directive. Without reading the subtitle, the name first conjures up places where a lounge chair and a cool drink are certain to be waiting. And even calling it a “guide to creativity” doesn’t accurately prepare the reader for what this book is about. It’s more an attempt to recommend some popular points of interest around the globe and then tie that place to a famous artist.

There also doesn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason why Lee has divided his book into five sections: Inspiration, Creation, Big Break, Hell-raising, and Reinvention. These categories seem to have been added as an afterthought. The sections zigzag between disciplines, cities, and periods. The crammed design of the book packs in a lot of textual information. Fortunately, there are enough pages to allow for several images to run full page or as double spreads. As a bonus, each section ends with a “Where to Go” list of about twenty additional inspirational spots. These locations are not tied to particular artists but Lee provides brief descriptions that suggest activities appealing to various art disciplines.

An attempt to tap into the mind of an artistic genius by examining where they traveled is a very clever premise. It’s evident that Lee has done his homework and he gives us little-known facts that are insightful on their own. By reading Fifty Great Escapes, many a creative soul might be prompted to travel to a spot where a fellow artist found their juices flowing. But it seems unlikely that lightening would strike twice in the same place. All the same, Lee’s book does a fair job of deflecting us from the fact that the majority of the world’s creative legends most likely had their brightest idea in the middle of the night on the toilet.

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