First off, having recently returned from a most encouraging showing of my books at Oak Knoll this past week, I must say thank you to many who have followed this blog and whose friendships I continue to make and cement in the “real” world. I was amazed how many mentioned reading this or the social media bits of DWP’s online presence and I feel I must apologize for this blog having turned more into a PR tool or travelogue. It was my intention from the beginning for this to be more about process and dialogue. So let’s begin again and I will attempt to stay more on track though I will still mention new work or events but direct you to other sources for more details. This will be a somewhat longer post to get things rolling.
Dialogue – what is letterpress printing?
At these events and exhibits I have the pleasure of the company of fellow printers as well as a cultivated relationship with private and institutional collectors of my books. It is with interest I have noted a recurring theme of discussion which has been raging in the fine press world for over two decades but it seems the buying public is just starting to wonder: What is letterpress printing? Allow me a couple of paragraphs to cover the general process and history, neither exhaustive or fully concise:
By definition I suppose it is printing from a relief surface via letterpress. Letterpress is a term that has only come into existence really in the past 50 years and has morphed into both verb and noun use. Prior to this time it was the only widely used reproductive process as innovated by Gutenberg in the 15th century and it was merely “printing” and those who printed were “Printers” Today, those of us who continue the tradition, draw on this legacy for better or worse.
Gutenberg’s legacy is that of the matrix from which type is cast in a mould. Type is something you can pick up with your fingers and compose into words, form sentences, paragraphs and pages with. It is the famous “26 soldiers of lead” which conquers ignorance and tyrants. Type remained in this form until the late 19th century when machine composition became a possibility with the technology and resources made available by the industrial revolution and manifested by Monotype composition casting equipment and the Linotype and Intertype line casting innovations. Both of these new means of putting words into page form allowed for composition to be done via a keyboard and then cast into type metal from that action to form the composed page. With this innovation and increase in production some compromise was made in typography as compared to hand composition but refinements could be used to help negate and bridge the narrow gap. This technology remained in place essentially until the 1980’s with the advent of the ease of modern desktop publishing with the dark days of film composition enjoying a thankfully brief stay in the 60’s-70’s.
So why is the question being asked now – what is letterpress printing? What is new now and not part of the 500-year-old tradition of printing is the advent of polymer plate printing. Arguably this technology is what may have saved letterpress from near death and made it accessible and popular with small presses offering wedding invitations, business identities, packaging, ephemera and – books. Printing from plates is relatively easy and they are created predominantly on computers. No knowledge of the history or the art of printing is necessary nor are many of the skills ingrained in producing printing with metal types needed.
Nearly everyone with a computer can compose text, add illustration and even make a book. True also that anyone given a box of paint and a brush can paint a picture. The quality of the product created is the sum of the individual’s understanding of the process, their artistic abilities, level of craftsmanship and, I would add, their understanding of the history of their craft and those who shaped it. There are countless programs now in higher education across the US, the UK and beyond teaching letterpress and book arts courses in degree programs and, thankfully, almost all of them start teaching students the basics of hand typography – assembling type you can pick up from cases and composing the project as has been done since Gutenberg. The polymer machine sits in the corner biding it’s time and offering sweet promise of relative ease and speedy efficiency to be utilized later.
I fully acknowledge that now, at this point in time, it is very difficult to assemble a letterpress shop. The machines, fonts of type and supporting industry revolving around letterpress ceased to exist in the 60’s for the most part. Twenty two years ago when I started printing book forms I received the bulk of my equipment for free or little money merely to make room in more progressive established print shops for more storage or that new all-in-one color laser/dye sub/inkjet thing that did 90% of what their customers wanted. What is left now of the equipment is often quite expensive to purchase and, while type still exists, it is not the sturdy foundry type of the days of old and still commands a premium prices as well. Printing from plates also has the potential of producing work of the highest quality indistinguishable from metal type except maybe for being “too perfect” – not a guarantee but full potential if used by a typographer and designer skilled in better than average desktop publishing software.
WHAT IS LETTERPRESS PRINTING?
Is it merely printing from a raised surface? Or is it more?
What is it to you? To what do you give value?