The stark white-on-black image on the cover of Cartographic Grounds: Projecting the Landscape Imaginary, edited by Jill Desimini and Charles Waldheim, is beautiful and mysterious. Is this Antarctica? Or somewhere within the Arctic Circle? The birthplace of icebergs perhaps?
No, this map by Bureau Bas Smets has nothing to do with ice. It shows the delta that is formed by the many rivers meandering along the border between Holland and Belgium on their way to the North Sea.
This is an example of a figure ground map in which everything else left out so that two elements — in this case, the black of the water and the white of the land — can be seen with hyper-clarity. Here, there is also one more piece of information displayed. There is, across the white of the land, a scattering of much less distinct splotches of gray which represent urbanized areas. This is a map that was created to help in the planning for the future development of this low-lying region where flooding has been a concern for centuries.
More than 80 years ago, Gilbert Grosvenor, the longtime editor of National Geographic, said:
“A map is the greatest of all epic poems. Its lines and colors show the realization of great dreams.”
That’s certainly true — but only if you don’t get over-awed and expect something in Panavision. Think of epic in the sense of heroic. Every map is an act of heroism since it involves attempting the unachievable — to depict the multi-dimensional world we live in on a two-dimensional page or screen. And we’re not just talking about the world of the usual three dimensions. Consider Kate McLean’s maps of smells.
Mind the Map: Illustrated Maps and Cartography, edited by Antonis Antoniou, Robert Klanten, Sven Ehmann, offers four of them. One, for instance, shows the smells the English graphics designer experienced in circling one New York City block, including aromas emanating from stores (green tea and leather) as well as street smells (an empty pizza box, a coconut, horse poop and aftershave). Talk about dreaming big dreams and going where few cartographers have gone before.
This book also includes a map of emotions by illustrator Lucy Engelman titled “The Emotional States of the American Road Trip.” Actually, she just drew the map. The reader gets to fill it in.
The U.S. map is divided into sections that are identified by a clump of images, such as fir trees in upper Wisconsin and Minnesota and meat cuts in much of Texas. To the right is a list with each image and a blank space next to it. At the bottom, the reader is invited to fill in the blank with the emotion felt when driving through that portion of the map.
Things of beauty…and clarity
Each of these books aims to show a wide spectrum of map-making, and together they cover just about the entire waterfront.
The elegantly designed Cartographic Grounds looks in depth at ten map-making strategies from a scholarly perspective and tracks their evolution through the centuries. Complementing that approach is Mind the Map with a wonderfully chaotic explosion of vigorous and frequently idiosyncratic examples, many of which involve illustration rather than formal cartography.
Both books are examples of how maps are often things of beauty, and that makes sense since, even with an illustration, science and art are involved — the science which is the gathering of the data to describe the physical place and whatever aspect of that place is to be highlighted in the map, and the art which is the making of the map as readable, as understandable, as pleasing, as possible.
Indeed, in Mind the Map Jonathan Corum, a New York Times graphics editor, notes:
“It’s not hard to make a beautiful map, but it is hard to make a map that explains something well.”
Picture and analyze
A map can be a work of art — especially when a guy named Da Vinci is the cartographer. Leonardo’s 1502 Bird’s Eye Map of Western Tuscany is featured in Cartographic Grounds as an early example of the shaded-relief method. The editors explain:
“The chiaroscuro technique, known for its strong contrasts, allows the voluminous qualities of the undulating ground to emerge through the interplay of light and dark…the key characteristics of shaded relief drawings.”
As these books demonstrate, maps can be used to picture and analyze almost anything you want. Like McLean’s landscape of smells, maps show us something we can’t see.
Consider two 1882 images in Cartographic Grounds in which the underground world of the Comstock silver mine in Nevada is displayed in wondrous detail. The first is a map of the spider-like network of mine shafts and tunnels in which color is used to designate depth. So, as flat as the map is, it is able to represent three dimensions. The other is a cross-section of the lode, indicating the type of rock and the location of the shafts.
A built-in frustration
That cross-section is an example of a built-in frustration in these two large-format books. Both contain more than 100 maps, yet neither is an atlas. In a great many cases, the originals are much larger, made to be spread out on a desk or framed on a wall. To fit the books, they have been significantly reduced in size, and, in many cases, the details are difficult if not impossible to read. (For instance, I had to find a larger version of the cross-section image online to understand what it was showing.)
Still, it’s a frustration well worth enduring for the sheer joy to see such creativity displayed from so many talented people, such as Phillippe Rekacewicz, a Paris-born geographer and journalist, one of several map creators highlighted in Mind the Map.
The book contains a series of six hand-drawn Rekacewicz works in which he explains how the leaders of various nations see the rest of the world — Cairo, Beijing, Taiwan, Warsaw, Tehran and Berlin. For instance, the 2009 map “The World Seen by Cairo” uses color-coded arrows to show where Egyptian emigrants tend to move and where people immigrating to the country come from. It also shows alliances and threats, as well as Egypt’s sources of income.
These books are filled with startlingly innovative ways to look at the world, and one of the most creative is by Vogt Landscape Architects in Cartographic Grounds. It maps a walk through the large grounds of the 18th century Hadspen House in England, but it’s not what you’d expect.
Instead of twists and turns, the walk itself is a straight on the Vogt map, but there are long and short lines coming out to the right and left. These track how far the walker will be able to see before some obstruction gets in the way. So, in some cases, the walk is evidently lined with foliage, and nothing beyond can be seen. But, at other points, the walker can look on, seemingly, to infinity — or, at least, past the edge of the page.
Chicago appears five times in Mind the Map. One is an attractive map of Chicago’s neighborhoods by Archie’s Press; while another details the favorite haunts of one of the city’s residents. Two maps by Kalimedia, displaying the entymological roots of hundreds of North American names, show Chicago as “Stink Onion.”
My favorite map of Chicago, though, is one that no Chicagoan would recognize. It’s an imaginary cityscape in which Jeffrey Bebbe mixes fantasy with autobiographical memories of a time he spent in Chicago. It includes recognizable names, such as Wicker Park, but also some names for places I wish the city had: Plaza of the Gods.
And there’s one place that’s laugh-out-loud funny: “The Vanessa Perplexity.”
That’s nowhere I want to visit.
Patrick T. Reardon
This review originally appeared in the Printers Row section of the Chicago Tribune on 6.12.16.