MapCarte 83/365: Atlas of Remote Islands by Judith Schalansky, 2009

MapCarte83_schalanskyMore often than not cartographers remain detached from the subject of their work. They are merely the mechanism to turn someone else’s science into art. A great map requires both domain knowledge and the means to impart that knowledge graphically. Often that requires collaboration but here, Judith Schalansky drew upon her childhood to imagine this superb atlas.

Growing up on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall, Schalanksy could only dream of travel and imagined far-off lands by pouring over the pages of an atlas. It’s how many of us gain our own wonderment, love of geography and appetite to explore. Later, she returned to atlases as a way of exploring the world and found a rich seam of places that deserved their own atlas. Her atlas of fifty islands she has not, nor is ever likely to, visit is a look at some of our more obscure places.

Schalansky studied as an art historian and trained as a graphic designer and this atlas showcases the skills with great effect and which won the 2009 German Arts Foundation ‘most beautiful book of the year’.


The 50 islands each has a double spread, with basic detail such as a grid reference, size, name, national ‘owner’, distance from other islands and coasts and a timeline of its discovery. Alongside is a semi-fictional description which reads more like a poem telling a story from the island’s past. This isn’t a cutesy book full of idyllic paradise lost – the descriptions tell of rape, cannibalism, human-rights abuse, atom bomb testing and ecological disaster. The maps are sparse, each settled in a blue-grey sea as if they are marooned. Cartographers are often taught to use the full page extent but here, there’s a lot of ‘white’ space. This adds to the drama of these isolated outcrops and shows how breaking a few cartographic rules every now and then can work wonders. The land is subtly rendered in greys with some black linework and also a bright orange for roads that matches the fore-edge of the atlas to tie the maps to the book’s overall design. Hill shading gives the islands depth and moire ripples show summits and steeper slopes. The maps are deprived of content but they sit beautifully.

Atlases work well if they have a consistent and coherent style and content. This is an exceptional example that pulls all the graphic elements together in a beautiful work that invites ‘finger-walking’ of the map…and which brings together poetry and cartography into a work of literature in its own right.