The saying “what’s old is new again” has never rung as true as it does in relation to letterpress printing. The resurgence of this mode of creation has been deemed by many as a renaissance, a rebirth of a near-defunct practice. And I get it. I see the appeal of this revival and the excitement that comes with “something old” becoming “something new.”
Prior to taking this class, I’d always assumed that the people who were into this renewal was simply motivated because of
hipsterism. That they participated in activities like letterpress printing to be edgy or cool or earn a niche set of bragging rights that no-one else had. I still consider this assumption to be true, but it’s certainly gained more depth than before.
There’s a certain allure that comes with DIY projects and other pursuits that require commitment and dedication. Like with the slow fashion movement that’s meant to counteract its cheaply-made, mass-produced counterpart, the process is equally—if not more—important as the resulting product, thus justifying the time and materials required.
In addition, it’s about being part of a bigger picture, being a contributor in a movement to breathe new life into what was nearly dead. Another piece of type in an almost empty case of a particularly rare font, perhaps. The manual aspect of printing draws in the ideas of ownership, control, skill, and creation.
Keeping those who print for themselves in mind, it’s kind of like why people enjoy cooking their own meals, because they have a say throughout the entire process and are relying on their own capabilities to reach their ideal goals. As for those who rely on a third party to conduct the printing, the aesthetic appeal of the handiwork involved certainly serves as a huge factor. The end product is not only personalized, but also completely unique to the consumer’s visions.
Because of this, printing can be seen as a more personal process, as it involves someone toiling over the planning and compositing and printing and packaging and delivering. Ultimately, the outcome of all that hard work can also be seen, felt, smelled, and perhaps even tasted (Disclaimer: I am not condoning this).
This ties in the notions of duration and permanence, as both typesetting and redistributing type can become lengthy processes, while something digitally-produced can be typed up and erased with a few clicks of a mouse:
“(With digital design) you spend so much time behind a screen, putting hours of work in, but then you just have a flash drive or a link to something. It’s frustrating that you put in all this time and effort and all you have to show for it are technically some ones and zeroes,” Quinn says. “With letterpress, you can look at your hands and see the ink. In the end of you have a physical thing that you can hold onto and give to someone.”
What Difference Does It Make?
Obviously, there are consistencies and inconsistencies within the contemporary practice of letterpress printing when compared with its historical forebears. Much like Ellen Cushman’s points on preservation versus perseverance, there are aspects of printing that have remained mostly unchanged and withstood the test of time, while other aspects have gradually evolved.
The process relies on essentially the same foundational tools and processes: choosing a font, setting the type, securing everything with quoins and furniture and a chase, and the baseline fact that it is ink being transferred from one surface to another via imprinting.
Similarly, the manual labor involved, the tactile experience of printing has most definitely been sustained and evolved into a point of interest too! Arguably one of the most attractive aspects of printing, the hands-on approach is a departure from the many hands-free advancements technological development and advancement has provided us.
What’s more, it is undeniable that the growth in demand for printers and letterpress print media has provided job opportunities and economic gain to those specializing in this mode of production. Like the women of the Victoria Press, contemporary printing has once again brought the print shop back into existence as a place for people to flourish and, at the very least, work!
And yet, there are features of contemporary print that make it markedly different from its previous iteration.
Perhaps, one of the most noticeable changes lies within popular opinion regarding whether the type should be pressed against the paper’s surface with enough force to leave indentations. Previously, “kissing the paper”—depositing just enough ink for the type to be clearly defined, but not to the point of affecting the sheet of paper itself—was hailed as a show of a skilled hand at printing. Nowadays, debossing or “biting the paper” is the modus operandi for many fledgling letterpress enthusiasts, cementing its place as an intentional, deliberate choice, rather than an indicator of poor printing.
Aside from this, modern printing has also, for some, become a more individualized process. Whereas the print shops of lo those many years ago favored large staffs to accommodate for the demands of operating said shop, this isn’t necessarily the case (pun not intended) for many press operators of today. We also see printing establish itself within the academic world, creating a world much different from the perceptions of how only unskilled, abandoned peoples would turn to working at a print shop.
Above all, letterpress printing was previously the heart of most, if not all, print media. Now, it exists as a show of rebellion or a rejection of modern print tech, such as laser, inkjet, and even 3D printers. It’s all about getting down and dirty and putting in the work to attaining that perfect product you envisioned. (And yet, it seems like most of these products have more ornamental value to them than before, when the presses were used for circulations like newspapers.
Okay, So What?
The rise of letterpress printing across the past decade has created an entirely new realm in which participants are not only reviving, but also renewing, refining, and redefining this relic of media history. It incites people to push boundaries and really consider whether perfection can be achieved in a work and process that was meant to be relatively imperfect and error-friendly (so long as you remember to print a leaf that specifically address such errors).
As Danish printmaker Dafi Kühne said, “There must be some techniques the old guys didn’t have.” Contemporary letterpress printing, to some degree, aspires to surpass its previous achievements and reinvent itself, making this print renaissance a force to absolutely be reckoned with.
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