What struck me the most about the film, Pressing On, was that all of those garages, workshops, and sheds where these letterpress publishers kept and operated their equipment looked a lot like my father’s various storage spaces. Drawers spilling over with tools, tables covered with boxes of barely labeled materials, and a fine layer of oil and grease covering everything, my father’s workspace paints a picture of a man who doesn’t like to get rid of anything. My older brothers liked to joke that the Ark of the Covenant is buried in the back of our garage. And, at first, that’s what the letterpress publishers look like: kleptomaniacs. However, this film shows that these letter presses, while often being discovered in someone’s basement or garage or in the deep recesses of storage, are so much more than just idle pieces of equipment in the hands of prospective publisher. They are artist’s tools, and these chaotic workshops are really more like artist garrets than storage units.
And that might be what’s really lost by separating artistic designers from the very physical printing process that comes with working with a letterpress. The best thing about chaotic spaces is that you never know what you’re going to find there, what’s going to inspire you. The space in which an artist works affects what is being created. As a writer, I know that I have found inspiration not in the ordinary places of the world (such as the white-walled classrooms that populate many campuses), but in the extraordinary places. The physical printing on letterpress practically begs for an artist recreate the extraordinary onto the page itself, providing scores of material for inspiration while leaving plenty of room for creative enterprise. Nothing exists in a vacuum, so why should book design be created outside the context of the print shop?
On the other hand, removing the designer from the physical process of printing seems to allow cheaper, faster production, that could ultimately lead to a wider audience than what could be achieved with the highly specified works created on a letterpress. But does everything have to be about cost? The film pointed out that Hatch Show Print posters are still remembered today for the impact they made on advertising, creating stunning visuals. There are some things that have more value than what can be labeled with a price tag.
So, in the end, I understand why the letterpress publishers collect these presses and equipment, just as I understand why my father cannot just toss aside what he has accumulated over the years. Everything has its value, and the space itself is an expression of that value, even if the Ark of the Covenant isn’t hidden in the back.
Hatch Show Print, https://hatchshowprint.com/. Accessed 12 October 2021.
Pressing On: The Letterpress Film, 2017, https://www.letterpressfilm.com/. Accessed 12 October 2021.