Sensibilities

An attempt to make sense of things in a random universe, one Friday at a time.

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28 August 2007

The letterpress

I relax my stance on embedding videos onto my blog just this once, so that I can pay tribute to the dying art of this wonderful way of putting words to paper. This is a very short but very well-made feature by Chuck Kraemer, and shows John Kristensen, the proprietor of Firefly Press in Massachusets, in his fantastic work area "not far from the fifteenth century." The video is heartfelt, moving, simply beautiful.



In this digital age, everything is "virtual," almost existing, always just on the verge of being real, here-but-not-quite-here. They are able to get here, I suppose, but there is always some sort of breach, an alienation, an other-ness, a there-ness rather than a here-ness. With letterpress, words are here, already arrived and always present, leaving no doubt that they exist. You see them on the page, gripping the paper, owning it. These are imprints that cannot and should not be taken lightly. By their looks alone, they are inviolate.

Here are some of my favorite lines from the feature:

"You are dealing with physical stuff. Letters are things, not pictures of things, and when you assemble metal type you are obliged to acknowledge -- accept -- that."

"Engineers of that day thought in organic metaphors. You see the jaws and you see the knees and the elbows. There is a human-ness to these mechanical devices."

"Real production press men could be doing this in 2,000 impressions an hour. But we've never been in that much of a hurry."

"The nicest thing that anyone has ever said about my work is it's always so suitable to the purpose. Yes, make it attractive, but make it be what the text needs it to be."

"The old guys got it remarkably right. There was an intuitive understanding of what constituted readable text. And so you can be at home with letterpress."

"It will die eventually, because people will no longer remember how to do it... It's okay; I'm only responsible for my watch. I'm thankful of the day that I get to do this."


And then, after a while, we may have yet another beautiful thing lost to time.


Post Script: I have just received a note from John Kristensen, his reply to my email informing him about this blog entry. Mr. Kristensen says:

"Thank you for your note about putting the Chuck Kraemer video on Firefly Press into your blog. I'm glad you enjoyed it; we certainly enjoyed making it better than six years ago now. (One of the nice things about letterpress is that the technology stands still for you.) Chuck Kraemer did a whole series of such videos for Boston's WGBH Public Television station, and our episode won for him an Edward R. Murrow Award and an Emmy Award. We still get fan mail from places like Karachi and Leipzig."

With appreciation and recognition like that, we in the digital age just might be able to hold on to the letterpress yet.

13 Comments:

Anonymous dilettante said...

Nice find! Letterpressed books are very beautiful objects indeed. The letters have a solid presence on the page, carrying a warm, tactile feel. In letterpressed books, you not only read the words but you "feel" them physically, too. Somehow, the written word appears more distinguished and reverential when printed in this medium

10:14 AM  
Blogger Maryanne Moll said...

Oh, I agree! You can't help but take the words seriously. Beautiful, beautiful.

Thanks for dropping by, dilettante.

12:30 PM  
Blogger Daniel Ted said...

"Engineers of that day thought in organic metaphors. You see the jaws and you see the knees and the elbows. There is a human-ness to these mechanical devices."
-this qoute really got me thinking..hehe

1:09 PM  
Anonymous super_ed said...

I was lucky to tackle this discipline or art of letterpress in college in the 1998 - then, printing companies are started to shift to digital from offset machines.

Manila still has quiet a few surviving letterpress, mostly Minerva types (shet-fed) but sadly, its dying.

Desktop printing substituted letterpressed cards and invites. Card printers along Recto and Morayta are gone.

What's disturbing is that Fine Art schools have dislodged traditional printing technologies topics, and nobody is interested anymore, its not surprising students doesn't know their typography foundation.

12:07 PM  
Blogger Kate said...

My mother deals with a lot of printing presses who still use this method, so I think Manila is safe (for now) with keeping this art form alive - although, that's probably because they're too poor to upgrade, rather than making a statement like Firefly Press. oh well. - Kate

1:21 PM  
Blogger LK said...

Wow, you're back (sort of). Like me (sort of). On my blogroll you go...! Yay. (How's this for tripping the literary fantastic?)

6:51 AM  
Blogger CRISTIAN CARLO said...

wow, one of the best blogs i've seen around so far.

i hope you have time to update it again.

2:26 PM  
Blogger Sidney said...

I am an ex-printer. Did this job for more than 20 years... I can assure you that reality is less romantic.

It makes me think of city people who are visiting farmers in the provinces and finding it "sad" that the caraboa is slowly replaced by tractors.

I will quote Bill Gates.

” We chop down trees, transport them to plants, mash them into pulp, move the pulp to another factory to press into sheets, ship the sheets to a plant to put dirty marks on them, then cut the sheets and bind them and ship the thing around the world. Do you really believe that we’ll be doing that in 50 years? ”

8:26 PM  
Blogger Marne L. Kilates said...

Hi Maryanne,

Great video! Such nostalgia for old technology. I could appreciate some of it, and love the books so lovingly produced almost "individually," with the physical imprint of the fonts, etc. I went through letterpress at AMS in Naga City, when the high school organ in Legazpi was scrimping, then to offset in college, when the priests in Divine Word didn't have a choice, then to the whole explosion of the print-and-imaging technology when I joined advertising. We were also a bit nostalgic about Letraset and a headline composer called Morisawa, when Corel and Photoshop and In-Design took over. But all human inventions are anthropomorphic. The Industrial Revolution, where letterpress comes from, imitated limbs, hands, elbow and knees. The electronic revolution is imitating the mind, where, come to think of it, everything is virtual.

Read some of your stories too. I will go back to them. Shocking yung "Scorpio over Siquijor," even to my jaded sensibilities... well not much jaded apparently.

Just dropping by...

Marne

11:43 PM  
Blogger Mg said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

11:42 AM  
Blogger Mg said...

Hi Maryanne,

This is great. I recently had the opportunity to work in a letterpress studio abroad, and since having returned to Manila I've missed it very much. The video sums up beautifully the process, and the meditation of words, impressions, mark-making...

Going through the comments, you mentioned you still know of places in the Philippines that still work with letterpress? Would mean a lot for me to find at least one.

Thanks a lot, and sorry if this comes out of nowhere and in response to quite an old post.


Yours,
Mg

11:43 AM  
Blogger Maryanne Moll said...

Hi, MG! Thanks for dropping by. Traditional "imprenta" shops in Binondo and Quiapo still use letterpress. In Naga City (Camarines Sur), Winson's press uses them as well.

Although I have to say that these presses don't exert that much effort to make their outputs pretty such as in the Firefly Press video, but they are there in case you need them.

Good luck, and have fun!

11:47 AM  
Blogger Mg said...

Wicked, Maryanne thanks for the reply. I'll look into it. Thanks again!

11:49 AM  

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