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What is letterpress? Who uses it today? And who will use letterpress in ten, twenty, forty years? Those are just some of the questions that co-directors Andrew P. Quinn and Erin Beckloff attempt to answer in Pressing On: The Letterpress Film. Anybody can easily set type digitally, on devices as small as a smartphone, so why get messy doing letterpress? If you don’t know the answers to the above questions, you definitely need to watch Pressing On. If you do know the answers to the above questions, you should still watch it.
Documenting Design, Explaining Letterpress
Art and design have had a healthy presence on the big screen and small screen over the past decade, going back to 2007’s Helvetica by director Gary Hustwit. Since then, other documentaries about design have popped up, including but not limited to Art & Copy (2009), as well as Doug Wilson’s Linotype the Film (2012) and Briar Levit’s Graphic Means (2017). Netflix’s Abstract: The Art of Design (2017) has only had one season so far, but it’s well-rounded, including illustrators and footwear designers, and also auto and graphic designers. Pressing On is a recent addition to the genre, and it does not disappoint.
Director of photography Joseph Vella captures the printers’ workshops and tools in rich lighting, showing these artists, designers, and engineers in their natural habitat (albeit, mostly a crowded habitat, and full disclosure, both of my offices are also crowded, full of design stuff, collectibles, and ephemera). Focused mostly on the Midwest, members of the APA (Amalgamated Printers Association) share their stories, discussing how they got into letterpress and why letterpress will continue and must continue, regardless of the current challenges, and challenges that could lie ahead. Inspirational works by Hatch Show Print and Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum provide a definite wow factor throughout the movie—in truth, all of the design and typography in Pressing On struck me as wowee zowie.
In addition to learning about modern-day letterpress practitioners, historical background establishes context, going back to scribes who wrote and translated texts by hand, up to Gutenberg and the Bible, into the digital revolution. Movable type has never truly gone away, despite typographical and technological advances, including desktop publishing, print on demand, and web typography, not to mention having digital type on every personal electronic device. Stepping away from the computer and into the workshop, shop, or studio, the work and the machines are habit-forming—in a good way. Those who have used letterpress are familiar with its magic, but if the siren song of letterpress has never called to you, Pressing On might ensnare you.
On screen, “The aesthetic is what draws people in,” says letterpress printer Stephanie Carpenter, who is also the assistant director at the Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum in Two Rivers, Wisconsin, and an educator and graphic designer. By the end of Pressing On, viewers will realize that it’s not just the visual aesthetic of letterpress printing, but every single aesthetic. Sights. Sounds. Smells. Processes. Methods. Planning. Producing. Printing. And yet, a lot of time and energy goes into letterpress. There are a lot of stories told, some of which overlap, and they all prove that letterpress is life.
Printing as Privilege
But for some, printing isn’t a full-time job. It’s a privilege, a word Tammy Winn uses to describe letterpress and the opportunities that her and her husband Adam have been able to share with each other, and with the Iowa community through The Red Door Press. “I sought out letterpress,” said Tammy during a phone interview, “shoving a 1500-pound letterpress into the garage. The friends I’ve made, the conversations I’ve had, it’s incredible and unexpected. The day I take that for granted, I won’t be printing anymore—but I don’t think that will happen. My shop’s my happy place.” Tammy and Adam both still have their full-time day jobs—not as letterpress printers—so they aren’t able to work on press as much as they’d like. “If there does come a point when we can quit them,” Adam told me, “then printing full-time will be a privilege we have earned.”
Adam Winn (left) & Tammy Winn (right)
Not only do Tammy and Adam print and teach printing, but they also collect—and in some cases rescue—letterpress equipment. One of the most gripping scenes in the documentary involved just that, rescuing a printer. (Rescue is all I can say. I don’t want to spoil it.) During our interview, Adam said that, “Community is vital to the survival of letterpress,” and he and his wife have been a vital part of that endeavor, especially when it comes to the equipment they’ve collected and restored. When Tammy and Adam go to work, united as a team, and you get to see other members of the letterpress community come together for meet-ups, classes, and social events, you see the words of Rich Hopkins come to life. “It’s a shared passion,” he told me. In the movie, sharing is how masters and students come together, teaching each other, carrying on traditions, and inspiring not only each other, but also the next generation.
For the Love of Letterpress
On college campuses, during printing workshops, and at design conferences, I’ve seen design students and professional designers use letterpress once, and want to use it again and again, and again. Pressing On shows why letterpress matters, and how it brings people together, and above all, why touching typography—physically manipulating it and the ink and paper used for printing—is an experience in and of itself. Tammy Winn summed it up when she told me, “For the people who fall in love with it, you don’t want it to go away. It’s all a labor of love.” After seeing the movie and the connections that the artists, designers, engineers, printers, and technicians have with the media—and with each other—I’m hopeful and confident that this generation and subsequent generations will carry on the letterpress tradition. Pressing on, indeed.
Pressing On still images by Bayonet Media.
Pressing On is available on all major video on demand platforms: iTunes, Amazon, Vimeo, Vudu, Fandango Now, InDemand, DirecTV and Kanopy.