Hot Off The Letterpress
Erin Beckloff and Andrew P. Quinn, co-directors and writers of “Pressing On: The Letterpress Film.” have just released their splendid documentary on the art, craft and lore of letterpress printing. The film is one of a handful of indie productions that celebrate the glory days of commercial art and printing. Once essential to communication, the 500-year-old process is now in danger of being lost as its caretakers age. From self-proclaimed basement hoarders to the famed Hatch Show Print, “Pressing On” explores how the letterpress survives in a digital age. The film has everything but the wonderful aroma of the oils and inks. I spoke to Beckloff and Quinn about the glory days of making the film.
It appears that documentary film has found printing and typography. Your film Pressing On is an excellent addition to Linotype and others focusing on the lost and found crafts. What inspired this film? Andrew: As and outsider, my first real life exposure to letterpress was watching a Heidelberg windmill chug along. I must have spent 15 minutes staring at it, taking in the mechanics of the machine feeling like I was inside the mind of Willy Wonka. I was captivated by the idea that your formulate an idea, gather all of the pieces, and input your idea into this machine. Your tune in all of the settings, pull the crank to on and let it go. This magical machine spins to life and starts turning what once was just a concept in your brain into something tangible you can distribute to the world. Letterpress seemed like one of the few pieces of technology where man and machine work together to create something beautiful, art. I can’t think of a better subject for a film.
Erin: After receiving a Kelsey 5×8 tabletop platen press as a wedding gift from my in-laws, I started reaching out to printers for help to learn the process and acquire type and tools. I was quickly hooked by that magical, satisfying feeling of setting type, running a press and pulling that first print. The letterpress community is remarkably generous with their knowledge and would always introduce me to another printer with a special skill or unique collection—that was actually what first lead me to Dave Churchman’s Boutique de Junque, an important character in the film. Many of the caretakers of the craft are in their 70s and 80s. I felt like I was being welcomed into this special world. A desire to preserve and document the people and the knowledge that was being shared with me lead to my seeking out what became the Pressing On team at Bayonet Media.
Printing letterpress has never entirely disappeared, with so many private presses “online.” Do you feel that this is a discipline that will never die? Andrew: In making Pressing On I learned how much of a second wind the medium is experiencing. Obviously it will never be in as wide of a spread use as it was a century ago, but right now it seems to be in a growth phase. I think as long as people have a chance to experience the craft it will continue to sink its inky teeth into the select few who will continue to collect, use, and care for the equipment. As Dave Peat told us, “It’s a disease. You get really interested in this, and it gets out of hand.”
Erin: The last 20 years there has been an increase in the establishment, or revitalization, of letterpress shops in higher education institutions as well as amateur and professional organizations and private presses. Typography and the fundamentals of graphic design as we know it are embedded in printing. Printing, which was primarily done through letterpress, has been at the heart of culture and learning for 560 years of human history. This period of letterpress’ life has shifted to being more an art or craft, but it remains a powerful tool of communication and expression. The interest the younger generation have in the process and the willingness of the established printers and collectors to help them (us) is going to nurture letterpress’ long term existence.
Between Erin’s academic work and Bayonet’s client work, the project spent a fair amount of time on the back burner. Pressing On was always in my mind making it impossible to ignore. We were always trying to get caught up on our day jobs so we could get back to the passion project. I think this is an experience most any creative person or artist can identify with. With a long term project it’s critical to persevere. Inevitably you find yourself doubting the work, things feel stale. You question if it’s even good. That’s when you have to take a break. Show it to some friends. Get some feedback and come back with fresh eyes. In the end it was worth it. When we premiered at the Country Hall of Fame and Museum with a red carpet hosted Hatch Show Print it was a surreal experience. Most of the characters of the film where there and it was a big party. Afterwords people, strangers, were coming up to us and telling us how much it meant to them. Stories of great uncles who were lifelong printers. Seeing the audience connect with what we made and dedicated so much time to made it all worth it.
Jennifer Farrell’s (Starshaped Press) work is a reflection of her shop itself. Very bright and clean. Everything’s in its place. Some of the older shops, like Greg Walters, reflect the older days when printing was more a industrial and a necessity for communication. These shops are a bit more cluttered, dark, and inky. By visiting lots of different shops we were able to explore the spectrum of printing from a fine art that hangs in galleries to the busted knuckles of a job printer just trying to keep bread on the table.z
Erin: Pressmen, compositors, Linotype operators, all printers who learned through an apprenticeship or trade school had pride in the job they did and the work they produced. We were able to show that in the film through third generation printer Jim Moran, Jim Daggs who started learning from a master printer at age 12, and vocational school educator Paul Aken. The love of the craft is what connects the community. I think the aesthetic of the shops is a reflection of today’s letterpress printer’s often being both designers or artists and printers as well as opening their spaces to clients and the public to introduce them to the process.
Andrew: I’d refer back to my initial experience watching that Heidelberg hiss and clank out beautifully printed pieces. It draws you in and hypnotizes you in a very blissful way. I can easily see how the people in our film weren’t able to simply walk away from the experience. For those like Rick von Holdt and the Winns it became their duty to unearth the equipment and keep it alive for others to experience. For Dave Churchman it became his life’s work. I guess you really could consider that type of devotion on par with how many people practice a religion.
Andrew: As a documentary filmmaker part of the job is collecting hobbies or interests for a short, relatively speaking, time. For the past 4 years I’ve been fortunate to dive deep into the letterpress community, observe, and report as a guest with Erin as my tour guide. The success we’ve seen with audiences at screenings across the globe and online has been a great start to my career and will serve as a launch pad into further feature length work exploring how mankind builds relationships with the world. I’m currently starting pre-production that illustrates how dependent we are on trees and how the trees would be better off without us.
Along those lines, from what you see, is the interest in small, independent printing growing even larger since the computer? Andrew: The widespread adoption of personal computers over the past, say, two decades certainly has led to a resurgence in many forms of “slower” and more tactile ways of interfacing with what you create. Be it letterpress, Riso, or screen printing, even sign painting and calligraphy have reemerged.
Erin: People want to feel connected in the physical world, there is a desire for a manual connection to both the work and other people who are fascinated with the process. Without rapid development in digital computing, we’d not see this boom in letterpress—that growth democratized the technology behind printing which contributes to a desire to understand how things used to be done.
Take the pinball machine, would it still feel as amazing to see how videos games used to be if we never had the Game Boy?
Andrew: I think the best audience is one who’s looking to be inspired. Inspired to create or take on something new. The best compliment I received was from someone who reached out online to tell us after watching the film they felt so inspired to create something, but felt they weren’t a creative person. “So I went to the grocery store, picked out a bunch of ingredients, went home, and cooked myself a really elaborate meal…I just had to create something.”