Thursday, July 16, 2009

A Pointless and Questionable Classification

Classification of Printers Herewith is a foolish, pointless, and patently invalid attempt to classify printers, an effort fraught with half-truths, misconceptions and biases. That said, here’s what I think. While there are a myriad of motivations for people to take up letterpress printing, private/fine press printing, etc., the motivations tend to group into the following broad classifications. Artistic Types Some people wish to pursue artistic expression, and letterpress printing is a way of doing so. These people are likely to strongly stress images and illustration in their work, and to de-emphasize the content of the text as the focus of their effort. They may make “books” that aren’t books in the conventional sense – objects that look like books, but can’t really be read, or are not primarily being produced for the purpose of being read. Artistic types often use very toothy papers, alternative binding structures, odd page layouts, sculptural techniques, etc. Artistic Types are the most likely to violate Beatrice Warde’s admonition that “printing should be invisible”: for Artistic Types, printing must not only be visible, its visibility should predominate the viewer’s perception. Many people who fall in this category are people with college art degrees, who often dally briefly with letterpress printing and then move on to something else because of the tedium of the medium and the lack of widespread public interest in what they’re doing. On the other hand, it is not at all unusual for Artistic Types to also be Literary Types, in which case their books tend to be more readable. Literary Types Some people wish to use letterpress printing as a mechanism for literary expression. They may be writers themselves, although they usually print the writings of others as well as their own writings. For this type of printer, conveying the text is of prime importance, while the choice of using letterpress as a means of doing so is the result of a recognition that a beautifully designed and printed text is more enjoyable to read than is a poorly designed and printed book. Sometimes the literary motivation is combined with an artistic motivation. When good literary taste combines with artistic talent, the books thereby produced tend to be both intellectually interesting and aesthetically pleasing. A subtype of the Literary Type is the amateur journalist. Amateur journalists wish to express their opinions and to publish their own writings, and to do so, they take up letterpress printing. There are several organizations to which amateur journalists belong and which exchange the productions of the members – these organizations date back to the late 19th century. Typographical niceties are not generally a focus of amateur journalists, although there are exceptions to this rule, as to all rules. Some amateur journalists are among the ten-most-wanted for crimes against typography – tasteless and outlandish use of color and ornament being the most common such felony. An example of a purely Literary Type would be the Daniel Press of the 19th Century. The books are not very interesting typographically, but were primarily produced as a way to convey a particular text. An example of the literary/artistic combination type would be any one of a large number of fine private presses – The Printery, Bird & Bull, Aliquando, Warwick, etc., etc. Mechanic Types Quite a few letterpress printers are primarily interested in the mechanics of printing presses, typecasting, etc. These are the guys (usually guys) who would be out in the garage fixing up a ‘57 Chevy if they hadn’t become interested in printing presses. Text is usually secondary, and artistic expression is often an afterthought with this type (although some Mechanic Types have an artistic flair as well). But Mechanic Types tend to spend a lot more time tinkering than they do producing printed work. When they do actually print something, it is usually on the topic of printing itself. A subset of this type is the “Ye Olde Fashioned Print Shoppe” types. These are the people who are enamored of engaging in an archaic activity – they love to use old 19th Century platen presses (iron hand presses if they can afford them). They wear paper printers’ hats and focus on how they’re doing it “…just like Gutenberg did!” Again, for this type it’s about the equipment and the process, not the product. Busman’s Holiday Types The Busman’s Holiday Type is the person who works in the typographical design and printing industry, and who operates a private press as an outgrowth of their professional work and interest. Sometimes these types do crappy work, while sometimes they do great work – it all depends on the extent to which they combine a literary or artistic bent with their work. People like Henry Morris and Kay Michael Kramer were professionals in the printing world – Kramer a textbook designer, Morris a commercial printer – who established private presses that produce some of the finest work being done out there, combining both artistic and literary interests. Dwight Agner was an interesting type, who started out as a private printer when still a teenager, then moved into commercial book design as a professional career while continuing to operate his private press, the Press of the Nightowl. “Professional” vs. “Amateur” Printers Historically there have always been fine printers who attempted to make a living at it. This includes people who started out as basic commercial printers, but who developed an interest in producing fine work and became known for doing so. The Grabhorns would be a good example of professional commercial printers who became professional fine printers. In today’s world, a number of people of the Artistic/Literary Type have been able to be professional printers – John Randle at the Whittington Press would be an example, as would Carol Blinn at the Warwick press, Andrew Hoyem at the Arion Press, and Gray Zeitz at the Larkspur Press. This often (but not always) means living a very modest lifestyle, because making a living at fine printing is a tough row to hoe. Some of the best known full-time printers weren’t really professionals in the sense that they made their living at printing – they were people who were already wealthy and didn’t need to work, and became full-time printers as an avocation. The Allen Press was a good example of this type. A number of people who study letterpress printing in college go on to establish printshops after graduation that they hope will allow them to make a living at fine printing – few of them are successful at this for very long. Amateur printers abound, most of whom focus primarily on ephemeral printing. Busman’s Holiday type printers may operate their private press as an amateur undertaking, and they are a hybrid of the professional and the amateur. Some amateur printers, who make a living in an entirely unrelated profession, produce books of some substance, but this is a small and dwindling number of practitioners. Emerson Wulling’s Sumac Press was a good example of an amateur printer who produced a large body of significant work. James Lamar Weygand’s Press of the Indiana Kid was another. The writer of this essay has produced a number of books at the Contre Coup Press, although the quality of these productions would be a matter of debate and wouldn’t really bear comparison with the work of Wulling or Weygand. Serious book printers who are true amateurs (ie., not printing full-time as a profession or doing private presswork as a Busman’s Holiday activity) are few and far between today.