My alt.conf talk: The Age of Cartographic Impressionism

I actually did finish this around six hours ago, but… I can’t sleep.  So, I’m going to go ahead and post my first AAG talk here, a lightning session for the GeoWeb and Big Data alt.conf I helped to organize.


We all know that cartography is the art and science of making maps. In my introductory map reading, GIS and cartography courses I always stress, probably overstress, that the process of making maps must combine these otherwise disparate practices… to the point that one of my students paid homage, almost certainly with a tongue firmly planted in cheek, on an otherwise forgotten GIS lab chalkboard. But let’s rap on that for a minute. If we consider the technological advances that mapping has made over the past few decades, I see some parallels to an earlier shift in perspective.


Much earlier. Say, 1838. That’s the date of this photograph by French camera innovator Louis Daguerre. Though it’s not the earliest surviving photograph, this frame is notable for being the first recognized photograph of a person. In the lower left, you can see a gentleman standing on Rue du Temple in Paris. Given the exposure time needed with this primitive process, the only way this gentleman is visible is because he stood still long enough to get a shoe shine.


Move forward another 25 years to 1863, and suddenly photography has become portable and reliable enough to be useful as a medium for photojournalism. Perhaps the most famous early photojournalist was American photographer Matthew Brady. Though this photo at Gettysburg, and many of his other Civil War battlefield photographs were staged by moving bodies to “more honorable” positions, this was the first time civilians glanced a view of distant battlefields.


Fast-forward to the 1880s, and a weird shift occurs. Now photography was within reach for a far wider reaching audience. The improved convenience and ability of photographs to capture an instant led to its widespread adoption despite its still relatively high cost. Visual art was now candid, disposable and far more casual. In fact, this 1880 Louis Igout series “Academies”, was produced specifically to serve as a practice tool for painters, representing an interesting flip in the evolving dynamic between practitioners of the two media.

Noticing this shift, painters, particularly in France, began to react. Painting had, for centuries, been a lengthy process that required artists to essentially construct a composite image of what they had seen, eliminating differences in daylight, sun angle, vegetation growth or human expression to mentally, then tangibly, construct a scene that in all likelihood never occurred all at once. This changed abruptly beginning in the 1880s when painters like Renoir and Monet embarked upon a movement they called “Impressionism.” These painters, inspired and perhaps a little offended by the sudden ubiquity of photography, began accounting for such changes of mood brought by environmental conditions, favoring an instant reaction over a long-contemplated and edited mental image. One example is the Monet’s 1893 Cathedrale de Rouen series shown above, an attempt to not only paint the scene quickly but to capture the mood of the instant.

I know, I’m getting to that part. The connection I’m attempting to draw here is the potential parallel between what happened in late 19th century France to what happened in late 20th and early 21st century mapping. As the tools needed for mapping have become more technologically advanced, and in particular more widely accessible to the masses, I argue that we’re entering a new age of impressionist cartography, where mood and moment are just as important as scale and shapefiles.


For a simple example, allow me to shamelessly plug the work of my students, partially this talk’s inspiration. This past September, our school installed lights for the football field and had a big party to celebrate our first night game. During that game, mapping students launched an imaging balloon over the field to capture the festivities. What resulted, partially by accident, was quantifiably two very similar maps that are somehow also completely different. Though the features, scale, and orientation in each of the two maptiles we produced were identical to one another, the feel of the images are much different. Because mapping equipment has become more technologically advanced, we’re able to increase our spatial and temporal resolution of such imagery, and ultimately we’re inching closer to every cartographer’s impossible goal: a wholly mapped earth, with science leading the way. But can earth truly be mapped in its entirety without accounting for, and embracing, differences like those shown above? Mood, for lack of better terms, isn’t quantifiable or objective, but it’s certainly the distinguishing factor between these two scenes. Are neither of these maps “accurate” or are both of them? It’s a question that’s difficult to answer. In this case, our technology is allowing us to capture “attributes” that we truly never could before, ones far better suited for the “art” end than the science one, ones that have. Do we find ourselves facing the same dilemma as those Impressionist French painters over a century ago when confronted with new technology that completely changed their practice? I would posit that yes, we do, or we will, and if not, maybe this is a dilemma we should seek! If we don’t embrace this change and reexamine the very meaning of cartography, which my students know is the art & science of making maps, we as professional mapmakers may eventually find ourselves irrelevant, if not redundant.

Well, that’s it, or the draft at least. Come on out to the Tampa Convention Center in a few hours if you’d like to hear the finished version.

Author: Andrew Shears

Andrew Shears is an Assistant Professor of Geography at Mansfield University in Mansfield, Pennsylvania. His research interests lie at an intersection of the human-environmental nexus, and includes branches of mapping, technological, memorialization and urban geographies. He lives in Wellsboro, Pennsylvania with his wife Amy, a professional photographer.

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