Last week we went to the University of Leeds for the final in a series of conferences on letterpress printing. The previous three events had addressed The State of Historical Letterpress, Using Letterpress and Letterpress in the Digital Age; this time the focus was on Letterpress Printing: Past, Present, Future.
The conference featured key note lectures by Will Hill, Johanna Drucker, and Dafi Kühne to explore the survival and revival of letterpress today. Hill talked of fixity and materiality in print and the digital era and of popular phrases that transcend printing – it certainly ‘made an impression’ and showed how print is an environment for the making of meaning. The concept of value in letterpress was explored in many of the talks, including Drucker’s introduction to her life and creation of innovative letterpress books in the Bay Area. The beautiful and experimental books push conceptual parameters with a freedom from the traditional rules of face and spacing for aesthetic purposes. Her work has been fully digitalised and can be viewed at artistsbookonline.org.
To end the two day event Kühne, a graphic designer and letterpress print maker, talked us through the processes behind his work and how he overcomes problems (one example can be viewed in this entertaining video).
On the first day representatives from the heritage sector took questions from the audience. We discussed the idea of a national printing museum and how it could represent all kinds of print – from a broader historical narrative to technical information and backgrounds on early printers. This highlighted an interest in lesser known personal narratives, resonating with our aim to share the story of Thomas Gent at the Thin Ice Press. The debate between archival preservation and museum demonstration also showed how many people, both on the panel and in the audience, believed it is imperative to use these machines alongside teaching the history of print. This resonates with our aim at the Thin Ice Press to preserve and teach the printing process today in order to preserve how knowledge was disseminated in the past.
There were many more wonderful presentations on all aspects of letterpress, such as Naomi Kent’s on ‘Process not Product,’ in which she talked us through the processes behind her own work and how she took inspiration from 19th century decorative printers such as Albert Schiller. Seth Gottlieb, a member of the Thin Ice Press team, gave a talk titled ‘Letterpress printing: Enhancing STEM Curricula Through Practice-Based Research.’ It explored the use of teaching letterpress (outside the usual confines of history and design) to show how the tools and processes involved in printing provide useful lessons for STEM students to evolve their understanding of machinery and production. Such ideas were not seen anywhere else at the conference and, though the topic appeared unusual at first, the focus was incredibly fitting. It also gave an insight into his previous work at Rochester Institute of Technology, where he had worked with a team to build a late-eighteenth century common press. Our project at the Thin Ice Press would be impossible without his knowledge so it was amazing to gain a greater insight into his past work.
There was also the opportunity to view samples of work created by the speakers. This was another exciting aspect of the conference, a way of engaging with established members of the letterpress community, and something else we can look forward to creating at the Thin Ice Press.
At the end of the final day we even had an impromptu tour of the printshop at the University of Leeds and at Leeds Arts University. It was very useful to view these spaces to pick up tips on organisation and studio layout…and of course to marvel at the presses.
I’d like to say a big thank you to https://letterpress.leeds.ac.uk/ and all conference speakers from the team at the Thin Ice Press. It was wonderful to meet members of the letterpress community, discover new ways of getting involved and the many ways of preserving the art of letterpress.