Pressing on: The Letterpress Film attempts to answer the, er, pressing questions: How will the art of letterpress printing survive in a digital age? Who are the people who will save it, and why?
With a melodic, poetic pace and warm, luscious cinematography, the film is a warm hug, not unlike an NPR special come to life (in the best possible way). It is a gem of a deep dive into the world of a once-ubiquitous, now imperiled art form.
Like so many other small trades and even bigger industries, there came a point when letterpress printers saw their skills and their jobs transferred to a veritable army of computers and robots. When The New York Times made the “upgrade” in 1978, it signaled the true end of an era.
Except it wasn’t quite the end. As noted early on in the film, “New generations are fascinated by obsolete technology.” And it’s true. From vinyl records to Polaroids and slow food, young people are increasingly obsessed with old-timey, analog stuff like this — including not only collectors but practitioners.
Every single one of the elegant, behemoth machines is like a museum unto itself, like “touching history,” one artist says in the film. Even younger people who might have learned graphic design on the computer before discovering the appeal of the letterpress — perhaps especially them — fall in love with the pulling, letting, kerning and inking. Many of these terms have survived as tools in design software, but apparently it can be rather magical to realize where all that came from.
The letterpressers interviewed for the film range from older blue-collar artisans to young women, all of whom has a very personal story of how and why they ended up in their line of work. From journeyman apprenticeships to family businesses and random social encounters, they all have different reasons for their deep-seated dedication to their vocation.
Some love the analog heft and physical character of the letter blocks themselves. Presenting an array of minute choices, and by tradition going unrepaired when knocked, scratched or dinged-up, the letters themselves convey in their very imperfections their status as tiny witnesses to history. The imperfections are proof that they are, for lack of a better word, real.
The operators get banged up pretty good, too. Missing fingers and hot lead burns are commonplace “battle scars,” which the orneriest, as one might imagine, wear with pride. For some, the pride comes from the certain knowledge that they are actively preserving a rich cultural history for their own and future generations.
The film is co-directed by Andrew P. Quinn and Erin Beckloff, with stunning cinematography by director of photography Joe Vella.
The 100-minute documentary is available on iTunes, DVD/Blu-ray and on-demand.
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