Bookmaking arts Mind your Ps and Qs

Letterpress, the obsolete workhorse of publishing, has returned as a pure art form

Student projects from a recent bookmaking and letterpress class at the Southwest School of Art & Craft. The writer's book, in the lower righthand corner, is a maze book with a poem that tells the story of a conversation between a Q-tip and a teacup. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

According to letterpress lore, around 1456 a clever but poor German inventor by the name of Johannes Gutenberg secured a loan of 800 florins from Johannes Fust, a wealthy merchant and moneylender, to fund his living while he worked. Gutenberg had invented moveable metal type, individual characters of text such as letters and punctuation marks, cast in lead and tin and used to form words. He planned to build a print workshop, converting a wine press into the first printing press, and then pay back the loan by printing Bibles, broadsides, and chapbooks.

Unfortunately, the project took longer than expected and Gutenberg defaulted on the note. In the ensuing court battle, he lost the workshop and half of the books he had printed. Without the court records, we might not know Gutenberg existed because he never signed his work. Fust did, however, and so the first letterpress works are signed by him rather than by the true inventor.

"It's kind of a sad story," says Rose Harms, book arts instructor at Southwest School of Art & Craft. "Here was this genius that invented this thing that changed the whole world - we have books and are able to read because of him - and he lost it all."

The printing press was widely used until the 1960s, when it was replaced with offset lithography and then computerized typography. No longer commercially viable, the old presses were dumped - only to be picked up again by the artists and bibliofiles who would carry on Gutenberg's tradition.

In book arts, letterpress or handprinted books historically have been divided into two schools, the centuries-old tradition of fine press books, and artist books, a 20th-century invention. "One group didn't have anything to do with the other," says Harms. "They didn't talk." This is gradually changing, she notes, as fewer fine press books are produced, and more artists books are created.

Fine press books are formatted traditionally - standard books with illustration on the left and text on the right - and printed in larger editions, up to 100. Their creation involves a division of labor: a publisher to fund and distribute the book, an illustrator, a writer, a printer, and a binder. One example is the Pennyroyal Caxton Holy Bible, designed and illustrated by engraver Barry Moser. Penguin printed a trade version, but a limited edition of 50 hand-bound, letterpress-printed, and hand-illuminated Bibles produced in 1999 sold for $30,000 each.

Artist books, on the other hand, are created individually rather than through a publisher, with the artist producing every aspect of the book. "There are as many artist books as there are artists," says Harms. "There really is no definition because as soon as you come up with one, some artist's book doesn't fit that definition." Artist books marry form and content more than fine press books, either by inventing new structures or reinventing old structures, so that the shape or mechanics of the book are as important to the telling of the story as the text or illustration.

Harms' work falls between the two. She has produced chapbooks for Gemini Ink that fit the fine press category, but for herself she creates artist books "with an aspect of fine press books," she says. "I don't consider my books rough. You might see some books that are very raw in appearance, more sculptural, encompassing all kinds of materials, and those are less fine press."

This January, I attended a nine-week class taught by Harms at the Southwest School. SSAC has a Vandercook printing press, which Harms calls "letterpress at its most efficient and modern."

The first thing I discovered is that each book is comprised of a series of decisions regarding text, images, format, and construction, and myriad details, such as paper weight, ink color, and typeface. Each decision relates back to the relationship between form and content.

For text, I chose one of my poems, a conversation between a Q-tip and a teacup that seemed short enough to set in type during the class period. To convey the unfolding of a conversation, I created a maze book, which involved folding an 11 1/2-by-18-inch sheet of paper and cutting it so that it folds down into the pages of a book that can be read the traditional way or pulled open to display a convoluted accordion. That decision dictated that I use a single sheet of medium-weight paper, thin enough to fold, but durable. Conversely, Paula Cox's book combined letterpress, linocut, silkscreen, chine colle, and hand stamping on four panels that open into a scroll - an appropriate form for a book that combines a poem of ritual fires with iconographic images such as cheesecake girls, pyramids, and Michelangelo's David. The simplicity of the form allowed her to layer in handmade papers of varying weights and opacity.

The writer used traditional letterpress, photopolymer exposure, and tea stains to create her handmade art book. At top is the photopolymer plate with the Q-tip's image.

Setting type is a relatively simple task, but extremely painstaking and time-consuming. Jessie Stanco, whose book of recipes was text-heavy, decided to forgo lead type for photopolymer, a process in which a photosensitive plate is exposed to an ultraviolet light through a high-contrast negative, hardening the image or text onto the plate, which can then be used on the press. Polymer has other benefits; it's less expensive than collecting moveable type, easier to store, and, in some cases, more stable.

According to Harms, a polymer plate will produce true letterpress. "In the end, the criterion is the appearance of the finished project; does it have the tactile and visual quality that we love about letterpress?" Those dedicated to lead type might disagree, but even Barry Moser's book was printed with polymer.

I went the traditional route using the sans-serif "20th Century" font to express the bold, modern ways of the Q-tip, and the curly serif of "Adonis" for the aloof and ladylike teacup. Each letter, punctuation mark, and even the spaces between the words and lines in my poem I picked from a job case and placed in the composing stick, an adjustable, shallow tray, to form words, lines, and pages. In order to print right-facing, the words had to be set backwards. This is the origin of the old saying, "mind your Ps and Qs," which refers to the fact that, in their lowercase form, it's easy to confuse p and q, as well as d and b, when you are working backwards. Pulling type gave me new insight into my work: It was hard not to notice a pattern of alliteration when I started to run out of certain letters.

The final step before printing is placing the type onto the Vandercook, a puzzle-like process of locking the type in place so that it will stay put as the press rolls over it, producing a clean, crisp print. Though the text of my poem was a sparse 100 words, it took six hours to get it onto the press. But when I pulled that first print, it all seemed worth it - many small projects suddenly one tangible whole.

By Susan Pagani

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