Today most of us look at maps more than ever before, having outsourced our spatial memory to iPhone apps and Google Maps. But if those digital conveniences have made it easier to find the places we’re looking for, they tell us little about the place we’re at. They’re great at finding locations – not-so-great about connecting us to our surroundings.
Enter cartographer Dave Imus. His magnum opus – a four-foot by three-foot wall map, The Essential Geography of the United States of America – is designed to rescue us from what he sees as a predominance of thoughtless map-making and, in the process, help Americans to understand where we live.
A 30-year cartography veteran and self-described “struggling artist,” Imus’s artisanal passion has begun to pay off. In 2010, his Essential Geography won the Best in Show award from the Cartography and Geographic Information Society. Slate.com called it “the greatest paper map of the United States you’ll ever see.”
Like the map-makers at big name outfits such as the National Geographic Society and Rand McNally – whose work he compares to Carter-era Chrysler cars, “not up to world standards” – Imus begins with a computer-generated, two-dimensional conic projection. And that’s where the similarities end. With a perfectionist’s attention to detail, Imus pours over the curve of every road, the meander of every river, the sweep of every mountain range, and shape of every city to create a map in which “people will perceive things as they will perceive them on the ground.” If necessary, he widens a river. Sometimes he’ll move a road over a notch so that it becomes visible next to that river. He disappears towns that are found on other maps, believing that clarity is preferable to comprehensiveness. Like a novelist, Imus gives character to place through the crafting of minor details.
Imus acknowledges that the result isn’t precise according to the standards of geo-referencing. “It’s not meant to send guided missiles,” he says. It shows “relative location, not absolute location.”
Yet if the map isn’t entirely exact, it’s 100 percent truthful. It’s precise like a botanical illustration of a flower is precise – an interpretation of a thing that is at once beautiful and informative.
And like a botanical illustration, it rewards careful study. The shadings of the Green River reveal how deeply water cuts through the Utah desert. The hash marks around Miami show that the city was built on a swamp. The shadows of Nevada remind you that the state is organized like an accordion, one ragged mountain range folded onto another. Historical landmarks are given as much attention as the features of landscape. You may learn, for example, that there was a Japanese internment camp not far from Colorado’s Purgatoire River – an all-too-pat coincidence.
The map is a storyteller, full of ecological stories, demographic stories, cultural stories. In the course of telling those stories, the map is elevated to art. It situates us, revealing something we didn’t know about our place in this world.
Dave Imus is a four-time winner of the Cartography and Geographic Information Society’s “Best in Show” award, the organization’s highest honor. You can view his work and purchase his maps at www.imusgeographics.com