Is a map a picture?

Technically, yes; a map is a visual image, but subsequently, it is not and should not be treated as a picture. Patricia Seed is very vocal in the argument of “a map is not a picture.” Print has been the “gold standard” of maps, thought to be the most trusted and reliable map, because it has to be accurate to be printed, right? Not right. The digitization of maps that makes reproduction possible has its kinks: subtle changes in axes and in color; however, Seed points out that alterations are sometimes intentional. Maps have been treated as pictures – sellers can only sell what is aesthetically pleasing, thus encouraging them to straighten lines, heighten color contrast, brighten, or darken. On the other hand, digitization has changed the map game for the better: introducing more detailed study of maps, better and easier magnification, and, of course, portability. It is just ironic that digitization is the cause of the loss of fidelity for maps. “Maps cannot be treated as illustrations” – they must maintain their intellectual integrity, or the consequences may be serious (the example used is poor planning of irrigation systems).

"Mappemonde." from the online David Rumsey Map Collection
“Mappemonde.” from the online David Rumsey Map Collection

Take this map, for example; this print of a map is for purchase from the David Rumsey Map Collection. The note entails that the map was “hand colored;” chances are, the colors have been heightened or contrasted in this digital photo and will be in the reproduction. We would not know, though, because it does not state anything about the possibility of being photoshopped. Seed suggests that sellers clearly state “after the original” to explicitly show that it has been altered – changing intellectual property for aesthetics can be harmful.


One thought on “Is a map a picture?”

  1. I agree with you a map isn’t a picture. I think those that do call it a picture are ignorant to what a map really represents. With technology like google maps its incredible what we can see with maps. I think the old school maps versus the ones we have now they are so different but the same that’s very intersecting.

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