Legacy’s Complexity

Legacy. This word embodies how the featured video Pressing On: The Letterpress Film (2017) portrays the art of letterpress printing. Firstly, a generational lineage was emphasized as shown by the community members hoping to pass their knowledge of the press down to younger people. Second, it also points to a historical legacy that is woven throughout the past, from Johannes Gutenberg and his invention to ad notices in the South to printing in the 20th century. Even now when mass printing is completed through other means, letterpress workers still fight to ensure that such a craft is preserved and utilized. Finally, legacy is also present in how designers are permitted through letterpress application to gain a new appreciation for the entire printing process and a fuller sense of what is involved. Legacy is the thread that holds it all together, but unfortunately, due to developing technology, this connection is threatened with being severed.

Members of the letterpress printing community work hard at their craft, both to ensure quality and to keep the craft alive.
Photo taken from copper.org, captured by Somersault Letterpress

The worksheet question concerning whether to use something that holds a significant amount of history is a poignant dilemma. On the one hand, using old presses allows a firmer grasp on the past and the ability to delve into a beautiful and unique craft. However, this opportunity would contribute to such relics wearing out faster and ultimately being lost to time. I can only conclude that the metals comprising an old letterpress would possibly hold out longer against frequent usage. Compare this to a preserved quilt whose softer material would cause it to decay more quickly if exposed to the outside world. On the whole, it is an odd thing to be faced with such a sadistic choice: hide away the machines in museums to save their physicality but lose the technique? Or utilize them to keep the art alive but hasten their deterioration in the process? I was touched by the film interviewees’ firm beliefs that they should be used; despite the possibility of their being worn down, the history embodied by the presses is evidently too vital to understanding the printing process to let them go untouched.

Ultimately, it is ironic that legacy itself is the reason for the press’s situation. The invention of the printing press led to the mass creation and distribution of books, flowing into the Renaissance and its own influence. And as developers have continually striven for efficiency and new discoveries, the fashion has barreled right past the printing press to more modern and quicker means in order to allow for mass printing and distribution. But, while the efforts to advance technology are commendable, there is now something missing from the printing process. As poet Katherine Case’s quote states, “there is no better way to get to know another person’s poem than to set it in type and print it by hand.” Additional connections are present through the incorporation of the press: the more tactile relationship between the poet and the reader, and a firm link between the writer’s mind and body to anchor them to the present. Can we let such bonds be lost for the sake of efficiency? The letterpress community is ensuring that we do not let it be so.

2 thoughts on “Legacy’s Complexity”

  1. Nice thinking here. Funny, you mention “letterpress workers” – and I can’t help but point out that, now, they tend to be called “letterpress artists.” What does that difference in nomenclature – from worker or craftsperson to “artist” – account for? I think that the shift from past into present is really well depicted in the movie, which emphasizes this idea of “legacy.” The older generation of masters is wonderfully generous in educating interested young practitioners, though most of them are not using it in the same commercial context, most of them are artists making letter-art. Letterpress, like most living things, is changing with time. 🙂


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