Contours of Impression; Cartographies of Knowledge

I tend to dwell on the content of the maps. But today I had a revelation, one that may have a more of an impact on my archival efforts down the line. Today, I wondered about the sport, perhaps, or rather the technologies of the actual mapmaking. How are the prints differing? What are the processes and stylings of cartographic practice? I imagine their production is important for collectors. Somehow it was not for me until today. Maybe this was a form over function thing all along. In fact, if it wasn’t for the overwhelming focus on South America–particularly the Strait of Magellan–I would really question if I made a serious error in not recording the maps’ typology in this auditing process. Luckily, ancillary material indicates that my focus on the content is the correct approach to this.

But in that brief anxious episode, I went exploring. I wanted to chart mapmaking in the era of these maps’ production. The 18th century signaled a period shift in mapmaking. Gone were the salacious mermaids, fanged whales lunging out at hapless sailors, reptilian figures lurching over the shoulder of an unknown island spraying fire from their nose. Factuality was fore; flair to the cartouche and border. This was the beginning of Enlightenment remember. Maps served science. Everything did.

With industrialization dawning, technologies proliferated and cartographers gained access to more and more tools and skills. They had telescopes and this thing called a chronometer that would chart more accurately ones positions longitudinally. Most importantly though, came the beloved survey, a technique deployed all across Europe’s most stately nation-states. The precision of data becomes the veritable counters of knowledge production industrialized, manufactured to scale.

Derived from military practices, cartography remained highly specialized–if not even more. Technical planning of the maps involved choice of a counter interval (elevation separating contour lines, lines of constant elevation). Mapping step sequences, or operational phases, were determined by the most efficient technical procedures. A guide copy printed on several sheets of plastic coated with an opaque paint, usually yellow, imprinted these counters to be prepared for the negative engraving or scribing process. The scriber follows copy on the respective plates by engraving through the coating as an arc light can only pass through engraving scratches, which become the negatives for press plates.

Most finite lines, matrices, upon more grids of lines, some of which are 0.002 inches, or 0.05 millimeters wide, are intermediate contours engraved freehand. Yet heavier lines, the index contours engraved at 0.007 inch, required small tripods for perfect verticality. Boundaries and shorelines printed and etched on coated sheets, areas of woodland or water peeled off, leaving open windows for features. There, character can peek through the lines.

Despite these maps’ precision and multifarious means of production, only on a globe can maps retain fidelity. Maps, projected onto a flat surface as a method of production contain inevitable distortions. By light, impressions are guided by the choice of the engraver. With distortions comes perspective. What is my perspective? Perhaps its gnomonic, stereographic, or orthographic. I consider my projections in interpreting the material. I consider the contours of my impression of it. Archiving is a technology. All this psychodynamic cartography going on in the process of my task.