“Printing is a privilege”
When Johannes Gutenberg invented moveable type in the 15th century, the world changed forever. The printing press ushered us out of the Dark Ages into the Age of Enlightenment. Fast forward today’s Information Age and we still have much to thank Gutenberg for how the printing press revolutionized the world. For centuries, letterpress, a form of of pressing ink into paper with the use of engravings carved into wood, metal, linoleum or zinc cut plates, was the standard for creating books, newspapers, magazines, brochures, pamphlets, posters and many other forms of printed words on paper. Over the years, the craft of letterpress was fine tuned byartisans who learned how turn type into an art form. Unlike today’s flash in the pan technology which quickly becomes replaced or obsolete, letterpress machines were improved upon in such a way they became timeless. A machine from a century ago could still function the way it was intended if handled with care. With the birth of offset printing in the mid-Twentieth Century and the advent of computers, letterpress became obsolete. But a group of letterpress printers who value the art and craft of the process are keeping it alive and hoping to pass on their knowledge to the next generation.
Co-directed by Andrew P. Quinn and Erin Beckloff, Pressing On: The Letterpress Film is a love letter to this art form. It asks the question, why is there still a love for this obsolete technology? The documentary seeks out to answer this with interviews of letterpress printers, both professionals and hobbyists who honed their craft, appreciate the process and ultimately find joy in it. The film revels in the romanc and nostalgia of this form of graphic design. The beat up blocks, the machinery, the colorful designs, the beautiful typography are all part of a long tradition handed down from generation to generation. The interview subjects hail from mid-west and mid-Atlantic. We hear from people who operate independent presses whether at established shops or out of their garage. We learn about the long tradition of Hatch Show Print in Tennessee which made concert posters a collectible art and the Hamilton Museum which keeps the history of letterpress alive. I was particularly taken with the interviews with hobbyist Dave Churchman who collected, you could even say hoarded, letter press equipment. He passed away in 2015 and within the film we also hear from his son who was left in charge of the vast collection his father left behind.
There is a “pressing” need to pass on the knowledge of the art of letterpress to the next generation so it won’t be lost. Today we can appreciate the unique aesthetic of letterpress as a form of graphic design (everything you do in your Adobe Suite is influenced by letterpress!) but can we save the process? When the master printers pass on, who will carry their torch?
Pressing On: The Letterpress Film is a sensitive and reflective documentary that is clearly in love with its subject. It’s joyful about the form but melancholy about the future. If you have any interest in the history of technology, in graphic design or even in what drives people to pursue their passion, I would highly recommend watching this film.
Pressing On premieres on digital today. You can find it on iTunes, Vimeo or your favorite VOD platform. It’s also available on DVD and Blu-Ray which you can find on Amazon, Barnes and Noble and Best Buy!
Pressing On: The Letterpress Film Official Trailer
Aesthetic and Process: Exclusive Clip