Henry Grabar is a staff writer for Slate’s Moneybox and a former fellow at CityLab. He lives in New York.
Inside a beautiful new collection of "maps you shouldn't trust yet cannot help but fall for."
The rise of photography put painters in a bind. Since the late Middle Ages, Western artists had relentlessly refined their technique in an attempt to craft the perfect imitation of life. But the new technology quickly surpassed their efforts. What, then, was the purpose of painting?
Mapmakers today stand at a similar crossroads. Digital maps -- especially the cartographic empires of Google and the GPS companies -- not only provide instant, up-to-date plans of the entire world, but also offer directions and even transit guidance. What makes any non-satellite map necessary?
One response, which I explored in a post in December, is for mapmakers to try to beat Google at its own game. By embracing digital technology and open data, geographers can add a third dimension to maps, plotting population, income, rent, transit ridership, and more atop a familiar geography.
Or they can do the opposite, and try to resurrect what the digital behemoths have tossed aside: they can make maps beautiful, strange, or useful in more limited, particular ways. That's the path outlined in A Map of the World: The World According to Illustrators and Storytellers, a new atlas that prizes invention over navigation.
"Here, mapping is a personal affair," Antonis Antoniou writes in the preface, "and like in portraiture, can be caricatural, abstract, mysterious... These are maps you shouldn't trust yet cannot help but fall for -- they are the femme fatales of cartography."
In the category of maps not to trust we might put Dorothy's "Film Map", which melds nearly 1,000 geographically named films into an imaginary city. Below, a vertical section of the map, which also includes Miracle on 34th Street, Road to Perdition, and Field of Dreams.
Others depict real places, but in new ways, like these two maps of London. The first, "London" by Vic Lee, shows the city as the sum of its neighborhoods and landmarks:
Famille Summerbelle's "Paper Cut Maps" depict nearly the same area, but the impression is vastly different:
But smaller cartographers haven't abandoned the navigation business entirely. Borgarmynd's map of downtown Reykjavik, which is distributed free to visitors, blends the utility of a map with the charms of an illustration. Here's a close-up:
Likewise, James Gulliver Hancock's maps of Rome and Venice were intended to guide visitors around the main shopping streets. (Details were later added.)
But sometimes less is more. Many urban mapmakers featured in the book take a middle road, sprucing up a stylized street map with some choice landmarks, as in Katherine Baxter's map of New York:
Or Jon Frickey's map of Munich, "Meine Stadt." Frickey has created similar maps for dozens of cities over the past six years.
And then there are subject specific maps. Like transit diagrams that distort geography to suit the subject, Caroline Selmes "Madrid Tapas Routes" is a guide intended for one purpose only:
And that's only a fraction of the over 200 maps in this book, ranging in scope from cities to countries to the world. Nearly all of them have been produced in the last ten years. They are printed with neither category nor commentary, united by the fact that they represent a third way in mapmaking. They have something Google does not: the element of surprise.
All images courtesy of Gestalten.