*in between: the story of the letterpress
Alvin Tan tells us about the revolutionary process
Arguably, one of the most impactful and brilliant inventions in human history is the printing press. Developed in the western world by Johannes Gutenberg in the mid-15th Century, it was a revolution in text-making, allowing books to be mass-produced and readily available, unlike the handwritten manuscripts of ages past. General literacy improved greatly with its advent, and ideas could now be transcribed and disseminated much more quickly, effectively, and consistently through printed text. The printing press thus paved the way for the modern era through the Printing Revolution.
Essentially, letterpressing involves three stages. The first is composition, in which the text is typeset by placing various type letters in the correct order in a galley. Subsequently, multiple pieces are then imposed such that they are correctly spaced in the page, and in the case of multi-page prints, are arranged with the correct orders of pages in each spread. The last step is printing, when the surface is inked and pressed against a piece of paper to form the final printed product. The same relief could thus be re-inked and used repeatedly to print many copies of the same page, allowing a single book to be printed in many copies, making them much more affordable and accessible.
However, the printing press was not only a herald of literature, but of art as well. As the text did not have to be lettered by hand, scribes could instead focus on decorating the books with illuminations, as can be seen in the Gutenberg Bibles (pictured).
Subsequent technological advances made it possible for the art to be pre-set as well, including the development of ink rollers and rotary presses; these allowed the same sheet to be printed over multiple times with impressions of different colours, and yet retain the same consistency that had been the hallmark of press printing. By incorporating additional techniques such as etching, letterpressed pieces could now contain both illustrations and typography, lending it to a variety of purposes such as advertisements and posters.
The 20th Century brought yet newer technology, leading to the development of fully automated presses that were being used for various publications such as newspapers and magazines. By the 1980s, however, the development of computers and newer print methods such as offset and screen printing rendered the letterpress outdated, and it gradually faded out of popularity as a form.
This is rather unfortunate, because the letterpress is a rather unique form: although the printing is mechanised and standardised to the relief that has been set, each individual print is slightly different because of how the ink is spread, or how much pressure is applied at different parts of the paper. This gives letterpressed items a rather weathered or distressed look characteristic of woodtype wanted posters. Different print runs of the same design may also appear different due to slightly different colours of paint being mixed for each run. These factors mean that each print is unique and individualised, adding a dimension of depth to the mass-produced nature of such pieces.
Additionally, letterpressing is a very haptic method of production. In a sense, the art form is not only in the printed product, but also in the whole process of casting type, arranging pieces, mixing paints, coating rollers, and pressing sheets. Every step requires the physical involvement of the creator, almost like a dance between human and machine. The creator, then, is not just the designer, typesetter, and illustrator, but also the operator, which is a role not many other media offer. The tactile nature of letterpressed prints can also be found when the relief is pressed with more pressure into the paper, creating an indentation in a technique called debossing, which translates the physical nature of the process into the product.
Despite these qualities, the letterpress has yet to regain traction as a technique for art production. Many modern creators favour digital media and laser printing for their crispness and unwavering consistency; on the other hand, the bespokeness of hand-made crafts is also returning to the fore of popular art. The letterpress, which sits somewhere in the middle of these two poles, seems to be the party that is losing out, like a middle child of sorts.
Nonetheless, some artists are attempting to keep the letterpress alive, and continue to use this technique to produce pieces of art that have a hand-crafted and artisanal feel, but can be produced in large quantities. Hatch Show Print in Nashville designs 500 to 600 new posters every year, but even more remarkable is their motto of “preservation through production”, and as such they continue to make prints of old designs that they had crafted or acquired, even combining different reliefs to form collages and overlays that they call ‘monoprints’. On the other side of the world, in sunny Singapore, Jacqueline Goh incorporates new technology into her printing process, using photopolymer plates that transform her designs on the computer into physical reliefs that she can then use in her vintage letterpress to create postcards and posters. Their artwork, along with that of many other modern-day printers, is the uniting of the retro and the modern, and the creative and the mechanical.
Letterpressing, then, really is the in-between in many regards: it lies between the uniqueness of hand-drawn pieces and the consistency of printed ones, between the authenticity of older techniques and the efficiency of newer ones, and between the brain of the human and the brawn of the machine. It continues to carry very much potential as a tool for craftsmen to create with, and with the efforts of new artists willing to engage with this technique, hopefully the letterpress will retain its niche as the inhabitant of the in-between.