Thursday, January 5, 2012

Cartographic Near-Perfection

Okay, I confess to being something of a map nerd. I have quite a few hanging on the wall of my basement/office-space. In fact, one of the highlights of my holiday season was that I finally got around to framing and hanging my 1979 National Geographic map of Medieval England, which I think is one of the best they've ever done.

A good map is rich in both visual interest and information. The cartographic tradition, at its best, weaves together a number of different strands that have always interested me greatly: illustration, design, history, the allure of the distant and exotic, and storytelling, to name a few. (I would have added “geography”, but suppose that would be rather redundant. And if your talking about celestial maps, which is a favored sub-category of mine, you could also throw in “astronomy”.) A map tells a story about the region it depicts—and I don't just mean the ones with all kinds of extra tidbits crammed into the marginalia, although, if handled expertly, that can be a nice approach (as with the England map, again). No, even a more “straight-forward” map tells a story, and tells it well, poorly, or (most frequently) just so-so, based on how it handles the information conveyed within the map itself: which features and details it emphasizes and which it downplays, and the methods it employs for doing so.

Solo cartographer David Imus painstakingly created a new map of the United States which was recently awarded Best of Show at a very prestigious cartographic exhibition. The map, as well as the creative process behind its creation, is a real testimony to the time-honored values of craftsmanship, careful—even loving—attention to detail, and profoundly thoughtful and insightful artistry.

Indeed, from a design standpoint, I am absolutely blown away by this map. Just like a painting by a great master, it’s obvious that it was meant to be appreciated both from far away and very close-up. I’ve also never seen a map that struck such a delightful balance between the natural and the man-contrived, celebrating both with equitable and complementary enthusiasm. Hats off indeed to David Imus, and also to Slate author Seth Stevenson, both of whom offer encouragement to me, quasi-Luddite that I am, as I plug along at my own ponderous pace, in my own quaint way, with my own little projects, occasionally asking myself how hard I really want to (or should want to) continue trying to keep pace with the contemporary world and its rather obsessive predilection for gussied-up novelty and bespangled gee-whizzery. (Not that it’s all bad, now—I fessed up to being a quasi-Luddite, but that is all. Case in point on this topic: I really do like interactive maps, and it’s only rigidly imposed self-discipline that keeps me from becoming a total Google Earth junkie.)

Anyway, I hope to acquire a hard-copy of Imus’ map for myself soon, which apparently can be done here. (At least on a good day, one hopes. As of this posting, the link wasn’t working, but I trust that will get ironed out soon.)

(Closing hint to my wife: Christmas is over, but my birthday is coming before too long!)

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