Frank Jacobs has been fascinated by cartography for as long as he can remember. As a child he pored over atlases and would draw maps of the imaginary kingdoms that he created in his back garden, plotting conflicts along neighbouring borders. In adulthood he started to build up a modest collection of atlases and spent hours trawling the internet to find cartographic curiosities that piqued his interest.
Then one day he had a eureka moment. Rather than let these things loose after finding them, why not bring a collection of them together online in the form of a virtual atlas?
So that’s exactly what he did in September 2006. The site, which was aptly christened Strange Maps, was built purely for Jacobs’ amusement but it quickly became clear that there were more people out there who shared a similar obsession.
News of Strange Maps’ existence spread like wildfire over the web and by the end of 2007 the site had received half a million hits. Today it generates around 130,000 hits per week with hundreds of people submitting new maps and commenting on the ones that Jacobs chooses to post. So successful has the venture been that Jacobs has recently published a ‘best of’ collection in the book: Strange Maps – An Atlas of Cartographic Curiosities.
The book contains such nuggets as a playfully creative ‘rap map’ of area codes in the United States showing where hip hop artist Ludicrous’ ‘hoes’ live; a wonderfully inventive map of Gothic Barcelona; and an intriguing map showing Neil Armstrong’s movements during his moonwalk. It’s an eclectic, disjointed and fascinating read that’s hard to put down due to the sheer strangeness of some of the cartographic creations.
It also begs the question as to what qualifies as a ‘strange map’? This is something that Jacobs has wrestled with since he created the website, but he has come up with a loose working definition that he falls back on. “The map must be too strange to be in an atlas; it has to look nice; and there has to be a back story to it that makes it interesting,” explains Jacobs.
But doesn’t publishing a collection of maps contradict his first definition of a strange map, therefore disqualifying them? Anticipating this question Jacobs has a ready-made response.
“I see the book as an anti-atlas,” he says. “It is sort of an atlas because it is a book of maps, but it is an atlas with a twist. These maps are generally so beautiful and informative that they deserve to be printed as well as appear on the website. If not informative in terms of accuracy, then at least they are informative of beauty, strange viewpoints and historical anomalies. Collecting them in this form gives them another chance of convincing people of their interestingness.”
When pushed to pick a map that he personally finds interesting he struggles to select a single example claiming that they have all, at one point or another, appealed to him. Yet he does have a favourite cartographer: the 16th century eccentric, Heinrich Bunting. Jacobs’ book includes a map that Bunting drew of the world shaped like a clover leaf – a decidely curious interpretation.
“It’s a classic depiction of the world from that time, as it shows Jerusalem in the middle and sprouting out from that Europe, Asia and Africa,” Jacobs explains. “The interesting thing though, is that this was made in a time when he knew better. In the bottom left-hand corner of the map he has America, and at the top next to England you see Denmark and Sweden, which are detached from the rest of the world. What’s all that about? Bunting is a guy I would like to sit down with and have a conversation about maps.”
Jacobs might also want to pick up a few pointers from Bunting, if his own cartographic efforts are anything to go by. All of the maps included in the atlas were created by other people – some amateurs, some professional cartographers – except one: a rudimentary map of Market Reef, the world’s smallest sea island to be bisected by an international border. The map of Market Reef (which wouldn’t look out of place in a student’s geography text-book) was drawn by Jacobs’ own fair hand because the original image of the reef was of such poor quality, yet the map was too bizarre for him not to include in the book.
“As you can see, I am not a master cartographer,” he concedes, “but it passes muster and reminded me of the maps that I drew as a kid. I drew maps of the imaginary countries that I created in my own backyard, which might seem a little strange, but it’s not as rare as I thought it was. Apparently young people tend to use cartography as a channel for their imagination.”
Jacobs laments the demise of the craftsmanship and artistry that went into the maps created by the likes of Bunting, which were painstakingly drawn by hand 100 years or so ago, but that can now be created in minutes using computer software. However, somewhat perversely, Jacobs believes that the ubiquity of computerised maps in everyday life, such as in gps-based systems, has fuelled the growth of curious cartography and indeed ‘artography’.
“When photography replaced painting as the main way of depicting reality, that’s when painters really took off in strange directions,” he says. “Surrealism, symbolism, impressionism and expressionism were born because artists were liberated from the necessity to depict reality. Maybe the same thing is happening in carto-graphy – where we are seeing an increasing number of artists using maps as an element of their work.”
Thanks in part to this new breed of cartographers, Jacobs’ website doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. The number of hits grows every year, as does the number of maps submitted. Jacobs currently has a backlog of around 4,000 maps but he says that he’s still hungry for the next one.
Running the Strange Maps site continues to give him pleasure even when dissenting voices on the comment boards question the inclusion of some of his cartographic curiosa.
However, Jacobs defends his right to choose the maps that appear on the site and admits that it was a difficult task whittling them down to the select few – 138 in all – that made it into the new printed version.
“All of the maps in the book and, by extension, all of the maps on the blog were maps that at some point gave me an ‘Aha – this is interesting’ moment,” he says. “So they’ve all given me a little bit of visual pleasure and enjoyment.”
And that’s the major appeal of this anti-atlas – it’s completely useless as a reference book, which is, after all, the primary purpose of an atlas – but readers will certainly derive hours of enjoyment poring over its curious cartographic content.
Strange Maps: An Atlas of Cartographic Curiosities is published by Viking; £20. See strangemaps.wordpress.com. Simon Creasey is a London-based journalist