The following essay is presented in conjunction with Gadzook!, an exhibition on view at GOCA Downtown Dec 7-Mar 2. The regional, national and international artists featured in this exhibition explore a range of concepts grounded in contemporary letterpress printing practice.
Curated by Michelle Winchell
My ﬁrst exposure to letterpress printing was in the spring of 2007, through a book arts class at the University of Wyoming. The letterpress shop was housed in a cramped, cinderblock building adjacent to the main printmaking studio. This seldom-used bungalow was ﬁlled with intriguing equipment of uncertain use, each tool a glimpse into a complex, ﬁnely-tuned system. Apart from a brief, rudimentary demo given during the biennial book arts class, letterpress printing was not a part of the printmaking1 curriculum.
I was instantly captivated. I borrowed every book I could ﬁnd on printing from the school library. I scoured forums on the internet for any insight into the mysterious tools I discovered as I organized the tiny university shop. In the next several years, I would begin working at the campus rare book library, travel to neighboring states for printing workshops, and ﬂy to Wisconsin to visit the Hamilton Wood Type Museum. I found my mentors for this journey, appropriately enough, in books. Robert Bringhurst2 was an early guide through my own “wilderness of letters” and a Venetian volume printed in 1472 (the oldest book in the UW collection) sparked an ongoing fascination with printing history.
THE ADVENT OF THE PRINTING PRESS IN EUROPE
When most of us think of the invention of the printing press, we remember a fragment from high school history class: a vague something about Johannes Gutenberg and the democratization of knowledge. In fact, Gutenberg’s work was the result of clever innovation using existing technologies. Movable type actually originated in Asia— the Chinese inventor Bi Sheng made type from a mixture of clay and glue as early as 10453—and European book binding employed a screw press.4 Though he was not the ﬁrst to use these technologies, Gutenberg’s contributions should not be underestimated. The printing system he developed circa 1439 established a strong foundation on which future practitioners could build, addressing a number of challenging technical problems. As with any new technology, the early decades of printing in Europe were full of innovation and change.
The ﬁrst challenge for reliable movable type printing is the type itself. In order to align neatly in the press bed and provide an even impression, each piece of type must be the same height. This is harder than it sounds. The metal used for casting must be soft enough to cast but hard enough to hold up for thousands of impressions. Ink was also a problem—the ink used to print from woodblocks was water-based, and would not adhere properly to the surface of metal type. Fortunately, painting with oil-based pigments was well known in Germany, and Gutenberg developed an ink composed of boiled linseed oil and lampblack. It was applied to the type by hand using a soft leather ball. Gutenberg also modiﬁed the screw press to include a base to hold the type and a platen5 for taking impressions.
Prior to the advent of movable type printing, books in Europe were hand-copied by scribes. In the centuries before printing, the creation of manuscript codices was practiced almost exclusively in monasteries. These books tended to be large in size, and many were elaborately decorated. They were time consuming and costly to produce. Because of these restrictions, books were primarily communal resources owned by monasteries or other ecclesiastical institutions and royal libraries. Smaller scale books of hours were made for individual devotional use, but they were beyond the reach of most people.
The printed book burst onto the scene to much adulation. A good part of the excitement was drawn from the cost—printed books were aﬀordable to those for whom a manuscript book would have been out of reach. Nonetheless, to say that books suddenly became available to everyone would be an exaggeration. Printed books may have been cheaper than manuscript books, but they still were not cheap. Setting up a printing press required not only an investment in the equipment, but also, particularly in the early years, the acquisition of expensive manuscript books to use as printer’s copies. There was also a speculative aspect to taking up printing as a trade—manuscript books were produced one at a time for a speciﬁc purchaser, while printers were producing large editions and hoping that the market for them existed.
There were also those who were less than enthusiastic about the new trade. In commentary that echoes our own contemporary reactions to new technology, the Florentine bookseller Bespasiano da Bisticci and Burgundian prelate Raﬀael de Mercatellis both rejected printed books on the grounds that they lacked individuality. In 1474, only a few years after printing came to Italy, scribes petitioned the Senate of Genoa to throw the printers out of the city.
THE REVIVAL OF LETTERPRESS PRINTING
It is funny to think about these early rejections of printing in the context of the letterpress revival that began in the 1990s. The soulless mechanical reproduction of the 1400s is now the contemplative, tactile antidote to our digital world.
As personal computers and desktop publishing spread in the 1980s, many commercial printers discarded their letterpress equipment. Though new computer technology was the nail in the coﬃn, a transition away from hand-set movable type was already well under way—the use of the oﬀ set printing press had been spreading since the early 1900s.
Deserted letterpress equipment has been adopted by a new generation of printers. They are drawn to the physicality of the process, the smell of the ink, the embossed surface of the paper, and the individuality of each printed piece. They are proud to be part of a centuries-old craft. And they are embracing new technologies to expand the possibilities of what they can create. Some printers use photopolymer printing plates. Others use CNC machines and laser cutters to create new type or printing blocks. Even those who work only with historic type have revitalized the craft, developing new techniques and using type in creative ways.
Not all of the previous generation of printers abandoned the trade. Some retired commercial printers have collected huge stockpiles of old printing equipment, saving it from the scrapyard. Many are active in the printing community, sharing their knowledge and expertise with those new to the craft. As is often the case, the older generation of printers is not always thrilled with what the new printers make (one point of contention is the appropriate depth of impression left by the type).6 There are undoubtedly some curmudgeons amongst the group, but they are frequently generous curmudgeons.
Many of the new generation of printers feel connected to the historic power of the press as a tool for amplifying voices and spreading knowledge. The community now includes people who would have encountered barriers to becoming printers in the past. With a few exceptions,7 printing as a trade in the United States has historically been the realm of white men. As recently as 1959, distinguished typographer Beatrice Warde,8 in a response to a question about whether or not she had been trained as a printer, said, “No, the printing trade is barred to women, on the craftsman level. You can’t be apprenticed to the printing trade if you’re a woman, except in certain forms like binding and all that, and that’s been true for many centuries.”
Women are a big part of the letterpress revival. Ladies of Letterpress was founded in 2007 “to promote the art and craft of letterpress printing and to encourage the voice and vision of women printers” and has over 2,500 active members (membership is open to both men and women). Though the letterpress community is more diverse than it has been in the past, voices of color are still under-represented. The community has not yet reckoned with this in a public manner, though several printers have taken jabs at hidebound customs.9
ABOUT THE EXHIBITION
This exhibition showcases the multifarious and inventive work being done by contemporary printers. Two local presses, Ladyﬁngers Letterpress and the Press at Colorado College, have created work in the rich tradition of protest posters as part of For Freedoms’ 50 State Initiative.
Amos Kennedy embodies the egalitarian nature of printing, creating large press runs of provocative broadsides that showcase unconventional aphorisms, African proverbs, and more. His printing technique is unconventional, too—he creates rich, thick layers of ink, running each print through the press multiple times.
Anne Luben runs hand-dyed textiles through the press, then quilts them into huge, oversized broadsides. Her work entwines Western visual vernacular with larger-than-life narrative, creating her own folkloric vision of the West.
Judith Poirier combines typography and ﬁlmmaking by printing antique type directly onto 35mm ﬁlm stock. She then cuts the footage together to create abstract ﬁlms, exploring and experimenting with letterforms, in an aleatoric process that leaves space for the unexpected.
David Wolske investigates the visual vocabulary of letterforms through his abstract compositions. He has created a meticulous masking process that he calls isotype printing, which allows him to isolate and print speciﬁc sections of each piece of type.
I hope this work gives you a glimpse into the deep love of printing that connects the lettepress community and motivates the obsession, imagination, and determination that will carry this craft into the future.
It is somewhat common within printing/printmaking communities to use the word printing to refer to textbased, movable-type letterpress printing, and printmaking to refer to image-based processes such as intaglio and lithography. This divide is sometimes reﬂected in academic structures: printing is often associated with design or book arts programs, while printmaking is generally located within a studio art program. Some people are particular about the distinction; others ﬁnd it superﬂuous.
Robert Bringhurst is an accomplished Canadian poet and translator known in typography circles for his book The Elements of Typographic Style, which is both a typesetting manual and a love letter to typographic history. Bringhurst became a book designer entirely by accident. In his early twenties, he started a publishing company with several other young writers. None of them had ever designed a book, but Bringhurst seemed their most likely candidate as he had a bit of architecture training. This project led him to read Daniel Updikes’ Printing Types: Their History, Forms, and Use, and he discovered that typography intersected nicely with his other interests. After designing his own books for years “in self-defense” (for fear that a designer hired by the publisher would not be a good typographer), Bringhurst’s publisher suggested that he write a book on type, since he was always talking about it.
Movable type printing did not spread quickly in China as it did in Europe. It seems likely that this is due to the unwieldy number of characters in the Chinese language. The thousands of characters required for a logographic system of writing are much more diﬃcult to produce, store, and organize than the hundred or so required for the alphabetic script of Europe.
A screw press (also used in Europe for olive oil extraction and winemaking) is a type of machine press which uses a screw mechanism to create downward pressure.
A platen is a ﬂat metal plate that presses the paper against the type to take an impression.
This debate can be summed up as kiss versus bite. Historically, a well-printed page did not have a deep impression. An impression in the paper was a sign of “crash printing,” or shoddy craft. The skilled printer would use just enough pressure to leave a clean image, but no impression. Many contemporary printers value the embossed look that comes with a deep bite into the paper as it serves as an indication that the piece was printed by hand. In the same vein, they also value the aesthetic of uneven inking or “shopworn” type that was anathema to a printer in the past.
One notable example is Frederick Douglass’ abolitionist newspaper, The North Star. Douglass was able to purchase a press with funds raised by British abolitionists. Biographer Philip S. Foner notes that the ﬁrst edition was typeset with the help of two apprentices and possibly Douglass’ oldest son. Several diﬀerent foremen oversaw the printing of the paper: John Dick (from the ﬁrst edition in December 1847 through June 1850), William Clough (from June 1850 to May 1852), and William Oliver (he started work as an apprentice under Clough in 1851). In an article published after Douglass’ death, Oliver, who worked for Douglass ten years, shared memories of teaching all three of Douglass’ sons to set type.
Beatrice Warde (1900-1969) was oﬀered a job by the Monotype Corporaton after publishing some of her typographic research under the pen name “Paul Beaujon.” She accepted, and they were shocked to ﬁnd she was a woman. She was one of the few women typographers of her time, and is remembered as a typographic scholar and advocate for high standards in printing.
- In 2010, Amos Kennedy and Rick Griﬃth printed a broadside announcing the “ﬁrst annual Amalgamated Coloured Printers’ Association Congress & Exposition…committed to the recognition & advancement of people of some colour in the printing arts,” a cheeky rebuke to the APA. To put the ACPA in context, one should know of the existence of an organization of professional and amateur letterpress printers founded in 1958 called the Amalgamated Printers Association (APA), that said organization’s constitution and membership qualiﬁcations are considered by some to be draconian, and that APA membership demographics are perceived to trend older and whiter.