Sunday, January 28, 2007

Imagining the World

Thinking of world maps as exercises in imagination is like placing yourself in a universe before Galileo and Copernicus, where the sun went around the earth. The world today is surveyed, measured, imaged, and the picture of the “Blue Marble” is a staple image in every child’s visual vocabulary. We know what the world looks like from above, so why do our world maps not look like that world?

The history of humans actually seeing the world from above is very recent. Balloon photography began in the 1860’s (a grainy photograph of Boston from 1860 is the oldest surviving aerial photo), and airplane photography really hit its stride during World War I. The first photos of earth from space emerged in the 1960s (it is interesting to note that images that do look a lot like earth from space began to emerge before the real images; see Richard Harrison Edes’ World War II-era views created for Fortune Magazine). So most of the world map styles we are familiar with are based not on how the earth actually looks form above, but on the imaginations of the map-makers in what “the world” would look like.

I put “the world” in quotes, because most world maps are not imagined optical views of the Earth (as historic bird’s eye views are imagined optical views of locations), but are more like religious or cosmographic views, with characteristics that reflect optical characteristics and other elements that reflect abstract, non-optical visualization. Does that make sense? A world map from 300 years ago shows coastlines that should more-or-less conform to those coastlines viewed form above, and hill-picture representation of mountain ranges as viewed from the side. On the other hand, it will represent the equator and national boundaries, neither of which are visible from above.

Such a mixture seems problematic for us in part because we think of abstract and representational as separate schools of picture-making. But consider Christian religious art of the Renaissance and before, and how it often mixes portraiture of patrons with pictures of the Virgin Mary and/or saints. The pictures are not suggesting that the patrons actually were in the physical presence of the Madonna who looked like that and sat in a throne of this type. The role of life-likeness was different in the era before science, evidence and fact dominated the intellectual world. As I said, it’s a hard mind-set to get ourselves into...

The reason I think it is useful for us to get our head into this space (or into equaivalent spaces from any number of other cultures), is that it repositions “accuracy.” We are used in our culture to thinking of accuracy as being the same as semblance, and it isn’t. Spatial accuracy is essential for good cartography, but visual semblance is not; this is one of the main distinguishing characteristics of cartographic maps as a visual form.

When we think about maps as pictures then, instead of reflexively turning to landscape painting or aerial views, we should look at pictures which also have this quality of accuracy without semblance. In Western culture, this is probably most visible in information graphics (graphs, diagrams, charts, and so forth), a field map-makers already feel a lot of sympathy with.

But we also should be looking at non-western traditions, in particular illustrations of religious or cosomological structure. These can be painstakingly precise (see Tibetan sand mandalas and Navajo sand painting), but are not measured against semblance of another visual object. They are also built to describe abstract symmetries and alignments, and as such can be seen as models of the sorts of visual description we have to create every day... maps with pie-charts, cartograms, transit route maps, and even the super-simplified national or world maps we base so much of our small-scale work upon.


David Ramos said...

There are slippery places in the cartographic world. There is something I love about the orthophotomap, no longer an aerial photograph, but still needing interpretation like the photograph. I have in mind mid-century photomaps of parts of Western states, ones that fit into the USGS 15-minute series. The read sometimes like a map, sometimes like a photo, but even that photograph is itself abstract, black and white, sloppily printed.

Of the different kinds of pictures, I like the line between pictures that are complete in themselves, and ones which need a context. Take a different sort of photograph, the documentary photo. I'll grant that it's quite possible to manipulate a photograph so that it shows objects in relationships that never existed in real life. It always has been.

Still, darkroom trickery aside, photographs tend to be unforgivingly accurate. A photographic image is the product of light acting upon silver halides, or on silicon sensors that mimic film. It captures a physical reality. What a photograph lacks is meaning. That comes only in the choice of what the photographer (or art director) leaves out, through cropping and framing; and in what the photographer puts in, with labels and sequencing of adjacient images.

A map is different. It is complete in itself. It lacks that essential connection to a physical phenomenon that provides a photograph's veracity, but it brings its own context, in the collar information and the labels.

natcase said...

I was sure I posted a response to this back in February. But now I can't find it here or in my documents folder... anyway, in a nutshell:

Cartographic maps I think aspire to the sort of unforgiving accuracy that photos do. Photographers choose what wavelength to record and then do it consistently across the area of coverage. How is this different from the layers of a map?

The difference is not in completeness in itself. Maps are, like photos, tied to the territory they cover. If you don't know what you are looking at (if you don't know geography), then you are as at sea as if you have photo without context.