All of the interviewees in “Pressing On: The Letterpress Film” highlighted the importance of the letterpress’ physicality. The letterpress, perhaps unlike the book it produces, engages many of the senses simultaneously. It is rhythmic, it smells of ink, it is tangible, and it is ordered but also creative. One interviewee emphasized that the act of setting letterpress is so physical that it can easily tire you out; even the machines constantly yearn to be active – and were built to be active forever. Another interviewee noted that the familiar process of setting type can be relaxing and a diversion away from a world that usually values mental work above physical work. Letterpress, by contrast, is both physical and mental, yet now most authors and designers have been separated from the process of physical printing.
This separation removes most of the passion and thoughtful attention to detail that features so prominently within the letterpress world. In the current printing process, for example, we do not generally gravitate towards type that is imperfect. Yet, in letterpress, printers did not repair a dropped piece, but rather continued to use it. The products printed with the dropped letter felt much more real and much more human, as the product could not help but be imperfect and finite. Moreover, the demarcation of author, printer, and product strips the book product of much of its character, aesthetic, and history. There are a multitude of microscopic decisions and actions that lie behind letterpress printing. Indeed, the painstaking process of setting up letterpress demands a letterpress aesthetic that strings all the products of a particular press, such as Hatch Show Press, together. Modern presses lose much of the aesthetic and character that comes from decades of use of a singular printing innovation.
As designers and authors are physically separated from the press, especially by the advent of technologies such as the computer and Internet, it becomes easier and more efficient to print any piece of writing. Yet, ease and efficiency are each double-edged swords; they allow for faster, more streamlined dissemination of material, but demolish the history and even community behind the act of printing. As printing moves out of the hands of individuals and into the screens of computers and machines, it becomes all the more difficult – and all the more imperative – to preserve the tight-knit printing community, of which so many of the film’s interviewees spoke. A hidden advantage of the switch to technological printing, however, is the nostalgic urge it produces, creating a reversal as many people flock back to letterpress. Tiger Lily Press in Cincinnati, OH, is one example of a letterpress store that opens its doors to new generations of printing; they offer printmaking classes for every level of printers as well as letterpress goods that perpetuate letterpress’ resurgence within the literary and artistic worlds (see their website, http://tigerlilypress.org/, for more). It is the humanity and physicality of letterpress which attracts new printers to it, and which prevents it from being relegated to the dusting corners of obsolescence.
Fleishman, Glenn. “The Letterpress Shop at SVC.” Glenn Fleishman Writes Words about Things, 25 January 2017, https://glog.glennf.com/blog/2017/1/25/letterpress-printing-a-book-of-my-writing. Accessed 7 October 2021.
Pressing On: The Letterpress Film, 2017, http://www.letterpressfilm.com/. Accessed 7 October 2021.
Tiger Lily Press, 2019, http://tigerlilypress.org/. Accessed 7 October 2021.
3 thoughts on “Something Old, Something New: Letterpress Printing Today”
I actually focused my post on the demarcations of the letterpress and how people appreciate it! However, I like that you mentioned there are places out there that are showing how to do letterpress, like Tiger Lily Press. One thing I wondered with the people in Pressing On is if any of them were able to teach their craft to others (I know some said so, but the ones who seemed most desperate are the ones who never mentioned teaching others).
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By all means, please spread the word of independent letterpress print shops. As few companies as there are that support it, it still proves to be a fundamental tool for exploring the artistry and exercising the prowess of your hands
My favorite thing about your film reflection is the sentence regarding how the machines to be active. They don’t want to jut sit and exist, they want to create. They want to be creative forever, that’s what they were built for! Chandler and Price machines, to me, very much look like parts of steam engines or part of trains. This machinery was meant to last and serve a greater purpose, they can’t just fade away into someone’s basement and cease to exist, because even though it might be forgotten about, they still persist.