It’s Not Nostalgia: The Skill and Vision of Lowell Bodger

Posted inPaul Shaw
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Lowell Bodger, who died this past January 26 at the age of 65, was a typographer, letterpress printer, planetary cartographer, and experimental filmmaker. A selection of his films (Wave Symmetries, 1971; Favorable Conditions, 1973; A Recent Animation, 1974 and others) will be shown tomorrow, September 16, at Anthology Film Archives (32 Second Avenue, New York City). The site describes Bodger’s early films as “exquisitely photographed and rooted in narrative” and his later ones as “graphically complex [and] almost scientific in their attention to detail.”

This last description could equally be applied to Bodger’s typography. For nearly three decades, he patiently explored the parameters of typography, paying careful attention to its smallest elements. Bodger began his explorations at a moment of technological transition. As type was moving from photo to digital, he was moving backward to metal. He carried out his experiments using letterpress but—unlike the fine printing fetishists of the time—he was not interested in the classical tradition of D.B. Updike, Bruce Rogers, Stanley Morison and their modern adherents. He spurned Bembo, Centaur, Perpetua, and the historic revivals championed by the Monotype Corporation and instead embraced the unloved grots, egyptians, and moderns of the much-maligned 19th century, typefaces created by the anonymous punchcutters of Stevens Shanks, Stephenson Blake, and other English foundries.

For Bodger, letterpress was not an affectation or nostalgia but rather a practical means of achieving his goals. Metal type combined with a Vandercook proof press gave him total control over his typography, more than could be achieved even by digital means, especially in the 1980s and 1990s. He shunned polymer plates. Like the compositors of the past, he wanted to be able to adjust the basic elements of a text —letters and space—by hand, and then see the results printed on paper. His texts were either taken either from 19th-century newspapers and packaging or from his own musings on cartography, astronomy, and architecture. His layouts constantly varied. Some were conscious recreations of 19th-century practice, complete with extra word spaces after terminal punctuation and extra line spaces between indented paragraphs (see “Excerpts from Country Matters,” 1989); some were more akin to 20th-century avant-garde experiments with changes of typeface, case, and point size within a line; and others were unclassifiable combinations of centered text, justified text, and freely arranged text.

Bodger was neither beholden to the ideas of invisible typography embodied in Beatrice Warde’s Crystal Goblet metaphor nor to the tenets of Swiss typographic style that was still ascendant when he began his experiments. He was part of no trend or tradition but defiantly followed his own vision. Bodger engaged in his typographic research as a personal project, setting and printing his texts at his chosen pace. For instance, the colophon to “Excerpts from Country Matters” says that the text was “set in type by the author in July and August 1985, and first printed in August 1989.”

So, what was Bodger investigating in his typographic experiments? The usual: typeface, italics, case, weight, width, size, scale, measure, alignment, orientation, and color. (He always printed in black, but he often printed the same text on paper that was variously eggshell white, tan, slate gray or grayish blue.) He tested out these aspects of typography by exploring the limits of his typefaces. For instance, “Experimental Printing 88-A” (1988) was a comparison of the widest and narrowest nonpareil types in his collection (6 pt. Egyptian Expanded and Consort respectively) while the layout of “Excerpts from Country Matters” was determined by “the size of the font of 10 pt. Consort Light” that he owned. (In metal type, the size of a font refers to the number of characters available—not their visual or physical dimension. In other words, once Bodger ran out of letters to set his text, he had no choice but to stop.)

Lowell Bodger is not a household name in the world of graphic design, nor even in the narrower one of typography. He went about his work quietly and with little fanfare. Most of it was kept to himself, except for the notices of the annual meeting of the American Printing History Association, which he designed and printed during a 10-year span. He reveled in the “skillful typographic productions” of the 19th century. Today, we can revel in his skillful derivations and extensions. Those interested in Lowell Bodger’s typographic work can see examples—and seeing letterpress in person is immeasurably more illuminating than seeing it on-screen—in the Lowell Bodger Collection in the Rare Book and Manuscripts Library at Butler Library, Columbia University.

The examples reproduced here are courtesy of Jane Rodgers Siegel, Rare Book Librarian at the Rare Book and Manuscripts Library.