Intimate Mapscapes

Maps of almost any era are designed from the proverbial 10,000 feet in the sky perspective. They are the original geographic overview tools that allow us to see and understand patterns and relationships over vast distances and across seemingly unrelated space. That high level view is often built from a collection of smaller more intimate representations. In those small supporting details there are often unintended scenes and stories ripe for exploiting as both a source of art outright or as the raw material for new visualizations and graphics. With historic maps in particular, which frequently use a variety of richly embellished symbologies for the natural world, there are countless opportunities for isolating intimate scenes in the same way we use other forms of visual art to select out stories and details from the world at large.

There is a natural intersection between cartographic views of the landscape, and photographic ones. In both we are isolating a simplified view from a much larger and more chaotic one. My own interest in photography often follows an amplified method of isolation in which smaller scenes are taken out of context to create a new narrative, or highlight subjects most observers fail to notice. When a view of a grand landscape is presented to me, I usually find the smaller vignettes at my feet more compelling subjects. This hobby has carried over to a new way seeing into maps as well. When presented with a sweeping composite view of Paris, I immediately key in on the lone boat figures on the Seine, the only humans depicted in the map! Masters of these methods in photography are easy to find online: Michael Kenna, Edward Weston, Rachael Talibart, Adrian Vila. But these methods are open to us all, easy to replicate and when applied to another kind of landscape, maps, the results are every bit as compelling.

Below is a selection of landscape images alongside related clips from our map collection. These map-image pairs hopefully highlight how cropping small scenes from old maps can provide both new focus to hidden stories as well as more abstract purely aesthetic views of artifacts originally intended to be tools more than art.

Lines and Intersections

Lines of intersection in nature are always a good subject to photograph. Placing features and convergences on the hidden "rule of thirds" intersections adds to the feeling of visual balance. Repeating lines, taken out of their original context turns map symbols into sculptural elements.

Intersecting lines
Hops vines


Centering around interesting symmetrical features is an often used method in photography. Isolating those features in negative space gives the scene a feeling of harmony by eliminating visual conflict and creating focus on the subject.

Volcano hachures
Water in negative space


Capturing motion in photography may be easier than isolating it from a map, but older maps are full of the suggestion of dynamic forces and cropping around these can still create interesting scenes. Water in particular is often depicted with lines of motion or depth radiating out from the land.

River waterlines
Waves breaking over rocks


Maps are always an abstraction to some extent. We can abstract from them again in how we frame our scenes, or by selecting features that are extreme abstractions themselves.

Tree symbols
Mushroom world

Human imprint

Even in landscape photography it is impossible to avoid capturing human impacts on the land. Maps often capture the connections between human and natural regimes in interesting ways as well. Agricultural fields, town and castle footprints, marks for shipwrecks. These embellishments carry enough of their own narrative to stand alone when isolated from the main map.

Agriculture on hill symbol
Hidden tractor

Shadows and light

Light is the central element of photography. Without it there is no image. The interplay between light and shadow create balance, depth, focus, and mystery in photography. Maps carry fewer cues to light, but are full of shadow in the sense that there is always more left off the map than put on.

Shaded trees
Dark orchard

About me

David Medeiros - Geospatial Reference and Instruction Specialist, Stanford Libraries

I’ve been involved in the world of maps one way or another for the past two and half decades, working a variety of GIS and cartographic jobs. At the Stanford Geospatial Center I teach students how to use maps as analysis and communication tools in their studies and research. Map design and aesthetics is a particular interest of mine and as a habitual maker of custom maps and terrain sculptures, I find the content in our collection of historic maps constantly inspiring and enviable.