Christopher Fritton is perhaps the latest (or recent) in a long tradition of itinerant (or tramp) printers. He started letterpress printing in 2006 and was former studio director of the Western New York Book Arts Center in Buffalo, NY (2008–2014). He left that position in November 2014 to start The Itinerant Printer trip in January of 2015.
The book that culminates the whole project is in the final stages of pre-production, and should go to print within a couple of weeks. There’s no firm release date yet, but Fritton is hoping for sometime in May. It is, however, available for pre-order through Fritton’s website and via Etsy. The book will be 320pp, hardcover, 12” x 12” and contain more than 130,000 words and more than 1,200 photos. There are 130 entries from shops, half a dozen essays, and a few other random musings throughout. The volume is composed as a series of interconnected yet independent vignettes, and it is divided by region.
Officially, Fritton visited 137 letterpress shops in 819 days throughout the U.S. and Canada, covering 45 states and four provinces. Some prints can be found here. I spoke to Fritton about his remarkable journey.
What inspired you to go out on the road and print in the tradition of the itinerant printers of old?I read a ton of first-hand accounts from tramp printers before I got started—their exaggerated, hyperbolic tales really gave the notion an air of romance. I loved the idea of being nomadic and doing meaningful work at the same time; it seemed like the best of both worlds. I toured with friends’ bands when I was younger as well, so I knew that a mobile project could work, I just needed to figure out the logistics. I also took a lot of inspiration from contemporary projects like Kyle Durrie’s Type Truck, Greg Nanney and Joseph Velasquez’s Drive By Press, Drew Cameron’s Combat Paper, and Drew Matott’s Peace Paper. They’re fantastic examples of modern craftspeople with mobile setups that helped me understand what it would take to make it happen.
Historically though, I identified with journeymen printers who still had more to learn. They’d leave the watchful eye of their master and travel the countryside learning from other printers, then finally settle down and start a shop of their own, and take on apprentices. I had no formal apprenticeship in printing, but I was lucky enough to have a number of older mentors; some of them were even union printers. After almost a decade of printing, I realized there was still so much more for me to learn. I knew everything about the shop that I ran, everything about the equipment there, but I knew nothing about anyone else’s. I didn’t know their equipment, I’d never seen their workflow. I understood that the best way to do that was in person—to take a page from the journeymen and hit the road. What I did, in many ways, with The Itinerant Printer project, was fund my own journeyman time in my career.
Describe your setup? How does this work?Believe it or not, the only thing that I bring on the road with me is paper and ink. All the pieces are letterpress prints made using other people’s equipment. I work exclusively from the idiosyncratic collections of wood type, metal type, border, and ornament that shops have, as well as woodcuts, linocuts, and photopolymer plates—really, whatever is available. This was the idea from the start, because each print becomes an index of objects in the collection, as well as an index of my time there. I spend one, two, maybe three days at a shop pulling together a forme and printing a small edition, and often I culminate a visit with a meet & greet, a pop-up shop, or if I’m visiting a school or university, a lecture or demonstration. After that, I move on to the next place to make more prints and meet more people.
How have you been able to support this passion?I started the project with a crowdfunding campaign that was very successful, and that gave me the resources to get the ball rolling. It was also a way to get people who weren’t letterpress printers involved—if you contributed to the campaign, you’d get postcards and posters from the road, things that I’d printed. That helped me bring designers, typographers, travel aficionados, and mail artists into the loop. Once I was on the road, however, it became a self-sustaining proposition; often I make enough by selling prints along the way to get me to the next stop—it’s a lot like a mid-level touring band. But if you stop touring, watch out, because that’s when you stop making money as well. Really, the answer to this question is by other people’s generosity. So many thousands of people have bought my prints, and so many hundreds of printers and friends have put me up in their homes, fed me, facilitated workshops and connected me to schools; keeping this ship afloat has been a massive group effort that so many incredible people have had a hand in along the way.
What are the responses to your “out reach”?It’s been overwhelmingly positive. At first I think a few of people wondered what the shops would get out of me visiting, but I think that resolved quickly. I would bring all my experience to bear, and I’d always leave a shop cleaner than I found it. I’d also help people set up, move, and modify their presses, as well as identify type and other various tasks, and I never shied away from helping someone finish a job that they were working on. In terms of the general public, however, my events were a great excuse to bring people together, and they’d often draw people out that knew very little about printing or who had never visited a shop. It was an introductory point for a lot of people, especially students, and it tended to open things up, and start a conversation about unionized labor and the role of craft in modern society.
When the trip first started, I had all my dates scheduled, and I’d been in contact with everyone on the itinerary. But as time wore on and the project gathered momentum, people began to contact me: “I see you’re headed to Portland, you should s
top by my shop …” It seemed like people really wanted to be a part of it, and they wanted a chance to tell their story. I couldn’t make it to every single shop that asked, but when I did, that’s what I tried to do more than anything: listen.
How often do you do this? Is this a full time itineracy?The trip was done in legs; I’d stay on the road for two or three months, then take a few weeks off and recuperate in Buffalo. Once all the moving parts for the next leg of the trip settled into place, I’d hit the road again. I covered the U.S. and Canada roughly in a large spiral: the Southeast, the Southwest, the West Coast, the Northwest, skipping over to the East Coast and Appalachia, then the MIdwest, the Upper Midwest, the Great Lakes region, then I rounded everything out close to home, in the Northeast. The trip formally began on January 26, 2015 and formally ended on April 23, 2017, but I still do events occasionally while I’m pulling the book together.
What do you print? Like an itinerant musician do you take requests?I try to let the collections lead me. Since I never know what will be there, it’s almost impossible to plan ahead. I’m flying by the seat of my pants most of the time, and I tend to design on the press bed. I don’t necessarily take requests, but I like to collaborate. I’ve worked with a lot of woodcut and linocut artists while on tour, and I love modifying their images with my palette (which is primarily fluorescents) just to see what happens. I’m not illustrative by nature, so I tend to take any opportunity that I have to work people who are. When I’m not collaborating, I tend to work abstractly, in the vein of visual poetry. Deconstructing and reconstructing letterforms, overlapping images until they lose their integrity, and decontextualizing symbols until they dissolve into their elemental shapes. At other times, I’ll produce really traditional work—I love type specimens, and sometimes I like letting those forms speak for themselves without my interference.
What has been the most satisfying thing to come from this?Being an analog conduit for information. In a time when digital technology makes it seem as though information is ubiquitous, it was heartening to discover that there’s still so much to be learned and so much to be shared that can only be done in person. Letterpress is a craft, and a craft is best served when knowledge is passed from person to person. The upshot, however, is that you learn as much about people as you do about printing. I feel like the trip has made me a better person, a more patient person, as well as a better printer. But there’s something else too, something bigger: a nationwide network that it’s created. I’ve become the connector between so many people; I can advise them on who might have equipment for sale, who might help them in their area, who might be looking for a job; I keep in touch with 90% of the people I’ve met on the trip on a regular basis, and I’m constantly introducing them to one another as well.
Is there an end point or is this your life for now?When people on the trip would ask me “So what are you going to do when this is all over?” I loved to joke and say “Quit printing, forever.” Some days it didn’t feel like a joke, and I thought I might. Like Duchamp, just quit and play chess. Technically, The Itinerant Printer trip is over, but I relive it every day of my life as I pull the book together, writing all the stories, sifting through tens of thousands of photos, and corresponding with all the folks that I’ve met. It isn’t actually over though, because I’ll go back on the road to promote the book, and I’m sure that I’ll hit a lot of shops that I haven’t been to, and a lot that I have. I’m considering a global version of the project for 2019—I’ve had so many invitations to go overseas, and I would love to check out the burgeoning letterpress scenes in Europe, Asia, Australia, South America, and beyond. In short, even though I’m not on the road right now, it’s my life for now, and looks like it’s my life to come as well.
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About Steven Heller
Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →