A Confession:

The fine craft, precious, luxurious qualities of letterpress printing have always bothered me. I don’t know if I can say exactly why—could it be a strange class anxiety on my part? Some sort of Oedipal complex? A general annoyance with fussiness rewarded and prized?

But I love letterpress printing. So how does that work?

It works, literally works, by mining a space in which the dominant assumptions about how letterpress can/should be used, and what and how it means, can be contested and played with. The tradition of fine printing goes back a long way, but right alongside of it is the fact that up until the 1960s almost everything commercially printed was letterpress as well. That means that for the majority of its 500+ year history, letterpress printing was simply the way in which things were printed, no more, no less.

So, historically, letterpress has its job printing side. A whole area of its signifying history waiting to be mined. Some might say that the job printing aspect is a moot point, as there are now more efficient ways to do job printing, and efficiency has always been the key.

But there are more commercial letterpress shops right now than there have been for a long time. BUT they do high-end, expensive job printing.

BUT their presence in the culture broadens the discourse, because they are teaching people how to print, to think about printing, in a way different from what can be learned in academic settings (which is my background). A whole area of signifying history waiting to be lived.

Printers, printmakers, are (the oldest) media artists. Like photographers, film and video makers, digital artists, we are tied to our equipment to make our work. And thus our equipment plays a role in determining the boundaries of what we can do—how big? How many? How long will it take? What will it cost? Etc.

Access to commercial equipment—fast, accurate, automated printing presses, and photopolymer plates—means that letterpress, within certain circumstances, can still be economically (both time and money) competitive with other methods out there. And the artist still has a tremendous amount of control over the process. Every reason to love the act of printing is still there.

Meaning is never permanently stable. Letterpress printing, like many media, is in a state of flux. Where will it go? We will have to make and see.

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