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Saturday, 28 January 2012

Portrait of the Cartographer as an Artist

I am sure everyone realizes that cartography is not exactly the world's sexiest or exciting field of study. A map is a map is a map, right? We all remember the musty pull down map of the world in our elementary school classrooms: the bright purple, green and orange continents, the lack of any truly useful information beyond a few rivers, capital cities, and major mountain ranges, the artless and utilitarian nature of it all. But it did the job. Where on earth is there room for subtlety and nuance when it comes to cartography? If someone asked me this question, and I assure you no one has, I would respond with a blank look and an insouciant shrug.

David Imus did not respond this way. Not at all.

David Imus, you see, is the head of Imus Geographics, based in Eugene, Oregon. Actually, David Imus is Imus Geographics. He works out of his farmhouse making maps of the United States. In 2010, he won Best in Show, the top award from the Cartography and Geographic Information Society. Considering this prize usually goes to National Geographic or the C.I.A Cartography Centre, I would say that is quite a triumph for one man with an obvious passion for mapmaking.

What makes Imus' U.S map so special? What sets it above the rest? And ultimately, is it art?

To answer the first two questions, the attention to detail from Imus is beyond reproach. Usually, U.S maps from the big mapmakers use typography software and designate space for place names using algorithms. The unfinished map is then outsourced to workers (not cartographers) to fix errors and space out the type properly, subsequently resulting in place names being deleted for more important ones (or highway shields). Imus, still aided by a computer, does all the typography himself, outsourcing his work to no one but his own critical eye. The cost of this minute attention to detail is 6000 hours of work, amounting to two years spent on one map.

But what a map! Yes, I actually just typed that.

From a distance, it appears to be just an ordinary map, much like the Mona Lisa appears to be just a painting from behind the bulletproof casing and hundreds of tourists. Upon closer examination, the full effect of Imus' meticulous eye blooms, especially in comparison to the standard mass produced maps. On the left is Imus' map showing the city of Cincinnati, on the right is the same detail from the National Geographic map. Notice Imus' map features green shading representing relative forestation, highlighting the terrain without necessarily drawing the eye away from other pertinent information, while the Natioinal Geographic map is merely printed over a white background. A minor detail, perhaps, when viewed up close, but as a whole it makes for a more natural, appealing map viewing experience. Smaller details such as the inclusion of three-letter airport codes and points-of-interest further solidify that this map stands head and shoulders above the rest. 


But is it art? Can something we so often take for granted, and seemingly does not leave room for many artistic flourishes, rise above the humdrum ordinariness of simply "being a map" and become an objet d'art? My god, yes it can. I see art as passion suffused with intense dedication and creativity, of taking something familiar and giving us a different take, a fresh angle. That is exactly what David Imus has done with his Essential Geography of the United States of America. To quote the irascible critic Anton Ego, not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere. It is people like David Imus, who has committed thousands of hours to bring to fruition the absolute perfect manifestation of his vision, who truly make a difference in this world. They unswervingly follow their passion regardless of obstacles or ridicule, thereby creating something that adheres to their vision and theirs alone. 


I doff my cap to you, Mr. Imus. 




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