The first installment of a new series in conversation with mapmakers on the works that most inspire them.

In the great data deluge that has sent publications from the old vanguard to the digital fringe, scrambling to bolster their mapmaking capabilities and beef up their data-visualization departments, Bill Rankin has one foot in each competing camp. His maps reflect a staid academic tradition of in-depth research and rigorous analysis, but deliver the viral pop that the web has come to expect from its maps.

Indeed, Rankin leads a bit of a double life: By day, he's a historian and professor in the History of Science Department at Yale University. By night, he's the guiding force behind the addictive and sprawling site Radicalcartography.

"The Midwest," Bill Rankin (2013)

Rankin’s above map of the Midwest is a perfect example.  Featured in the forthcoming collection Best American Infographics, the map is clever and playful while touching on fascinating issues of authority and geographic familiarity. It takes the abstract (and oft-debated) region of “the Midwest” and attempts to crowdsource its boundaries. In the map, a flowing, plastic border becomes articulated in layers transparencies, letting you see a hundred different opinions on exactly where “the Midwest” is. Rankin created the map by “using Google to find a hundred different maps of the Midwest (with a preference for those with some official organizational status), [and simply overlaying] them all.” Interestingly, he found that no area was included on every single map. In Rankin’s words, this is “a map of the Midwest as we might imagine it to be; […the] sum of all possible Midwests.”

This map is a visual representation of the kinds of debates that happen in barrooms and chat-rooms the world over. But ultimately, who can we really trust to tell us where the Midwest is? I will be forever grateful to him for bringing to my attention to one of the more interesting forums for these discussions: this page and other pages like it on Wikipedia, where Wiki-administrators carry on heated (but polite) debates on how to classify the Corn Belt, the South, and every other abstract geographic area on the globe. These are the behind-the-scenes parlor rooms where the definition-writers quibble just like the rest us (albeit with citations).

Rankin describes his work as a “reimagining of everyday urban and territorial geographies as complex landscapes of statistics, law, and history"; his maps deal with topics ranging from race and ethnicity to etymology and territoriality. Making maps since the early 2000s, he has been a pioneering presence as journalists have fallen in love with maps as tools for storytelling and representing data. His work has been featured in publications including The Atlantic, The Washington Post, National Geographic, as well as in academic articles and museum exhibitions. His forthcoming book is tentatively titled After The Map: Cartography, Navigation and the Transformation of Territory in The 20th Century.

He recently agreed to share with me a few of his favorite maps from history:

Map of Yamashiro Province, Author Unknown (19th Century)

Set afloat in a sea of empty paper, this map of Yamashiro Province, including the city of Kyoto, has a subtlety that belies a profound depth. Rankin explains, “Part of the enjoyment of the map is the skill and clarity with which it was drawn. It allows viewers to decipher its meaning without knowing Japanese; you can begin to decode the map using only the design language.”

Indeed, on first glance it seems hard to decipher: “Viewing the map, we experience a radical displacement from both our own visual language and our own understanding of how space is represented.” But on closer examination, it starts to open itself up to you. The green organ-looking shapes that surround the map reveal themselves as mountains—but mountains that are not bound by a single point of view, like most Western maps. They dangle upside-down or rest on their sides on the far shores of rivers. Rankin explains, “Unlike the detached ‘god’s-eye view’ that you see in many European maps at this time, this map is not a flat view from above and it has no natural orientation. Instead, it puts the viewer in the center of the map looking out; in every direction, the mountains in front of you appear right-side up. This means that the map is very much an object to be handled, and you’re being invited to rotate the paper as you shift your attention between different rivers, towns, and districts.”

Fremont Island SW Quadrangle, by the United States Geological Survey (1968)


Bellman’s Ocean Chart from "The Hunting of the Snark," by Henry Holiday for Lewis Carrol

Although these maps have an almost identical appearance, their origins could not be more different. The first was created by the U.S. government as part of an exhaustive mapping project undertaken by the U.S. Geological Survey. The second image, from 1876, is from Lewis Carrol’s poem "The Hunting of the Snark." Side by side, the maps make a kind of joke about the entire enterprise of mapmaking and sometimes-overzealous attempts to use maps to wrestle the heavens and earth into a rationalized system of representation and understanding. Rankin adds, “The USGS map gives a terrifying sense of the power of mapping—you see these hyper-rational borders imposed over a blank nothingness. Perhaps these exacting county lines in the middle of the Great Salt Lake would be useful if someone was murdered at sea or if there was some lucrative mining discovery and you needed to sort out jurisdictional responsibility. But these are relatively distant possibilities; if anything, they just make the whole enterprise seem that much more bizarre. Which is more absurd—making a map that shows only water, or actually finding a use for a featureless map?”

From Geological Investigation of the Alluvial Valley of the Lower Mississippi River, by W. O. Dement for Harold Fisk (1944)

This is one in a series of maps that accompanied a 170-page government report by the Army Corps of Engineers detailing Harold Fisk’s geological investigation of the Mississippi River Valley. That these gorgeous maps were simply appendices to a rather dry government report makes their existence all the more amazing. Equally pieces of art and careful scholarship, Dement’s stunningly beautiful maps have far outlived the report they were created for, becoming shining examples of data as visual art. The complexity and depth of data represented by Fisk and his team ripples out across the length of the Mississippi like multi-colored musculature. Rankin says, “Fisk’s maps offer a real sense of fragility. They collapse natural and human time in a way that is rather poetic, as the cities and small towns overlaid on the river’s historic meanders remind you that everything is wiped away when you think at a geological scale. Like Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem ‘Ozymandias,’ it reminds us of our hubris and that everything we spend our lives creating will eventually fall victim to the ravages of time.”

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

—Percy Bysshe Shelley

Map of the World, ~1450 (Fra Mauro)


Italy’s iconic coastline (Fra Mauro)


Egypt, The Nile, and The Great Pyramids (Fra Mauro)


Floating debris and a sea monster below the waves (Fra Mauro)


Here begins the dark sea… (Fra Mauro)

Despite the importance of this map (one of the first in the western world to show the existence of Japan and Java), little is known about Fra Mauro, the monk who created it. The map is a beautiful time capsule of European knowledge of the world in the mid-1440s, when the existence the Americas and Australia were as of yet unknown. A tiny inscription on the southern tip of Africa (which is at the top of the map, labeled Diab) reads “qui comenza el mar scuro” or “here begins the dark sea,” a subtle hint to the end of Fra Mauro’s information, but perhaps not the end of the world.

Rankin says of the map, “It is a complete diagram of the world in all its complexity, combining travelers’ reports and mariners’ portolan charts with classical, religious, and astrological knowledge —genres that we today regard as quite distinct. I love this map because every square inch is full of exquisite detail, and it operates at multiple scales at once. It shows rivers, mountains, and major cities, but it also includes views of the pyramids, curious wagons and ships, even individual trees and waves in the ocean. And everything is accompanied by text—little stories written by Mauro explaining his information and why we should trust him. The result is that the map is striking both when you’re 20 feet away and when you have your nose right up against it, for completely different reasons. This is definitely something I strive for with my own maps.”

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