Wednesday, September 12, 2007

In which I compare printing to chocolate

The other day I was doing a bit of surfing/research into the printing press at Pompallier House in Russell. I have written about Pompallier House before, when I visited there a couple of years ago. Since starting to make my letterpress dreams come true, one of my persistent fantasies has been to print on the much older flatbed Gaveaux press at Pompallier.

So when I found this web page, about a couple of Wanganui printers and book artists who did just that earlier this year... well, I was simultaneously excited to read about their project and jealous that they did it first and relieved that they've paved the way (presumably) for other printers to follow.

Anyway, I printed out the webpage (first pasting it into a Word document for elegance and efficiency) on the big colour laser printer at work. I showed the printout to one of my posse of retired printers and rather than comment on the content of the article or the illustration of the Gaveaux press, he admired the quality of the digital printout. This man has spent his working life printing through at least three massive revolutions in technology. He spent his career working hard to make the most crisp, clear and consistent marks paper possible with whatever machines were available.

On the other hand, in my working life, the perfect reproduction of a digitally designed page is something that I take for granted. I notice digital printing just enough to be aware of the mismatch between its high quality (and high resource use) and the mundane and ephemeral uses it is most often put to in the office.

And when it comes to reproducing my own creative writing, I devalue digital printing compared to letterpress. When I think of digital printing as flat, I'm not just referring to the way the ink sits on top the paper. To me, there is something lifeless and empty about what is spat out from the black box of a digital printer. Laser printing, ink jet, photocopying, even offset- they all seem to lack the texture and energy and life of letterpress printing. These are the M&Ms of print- superficially appealing and of utilitarian value but ultimately unsatisfying in their physicality.

Fine press printing, where master craftsmen patiently apply the fruits of centuries of accumulated expertise to well-tuned machinery to produce an exquisite balance of ink, paper and pressure is like the cabinet of a Belgian chocolatier- the pinnacle of the craft. Since I have had little direct experience of either fine press printing or Belgian chocolatiers, these remain the stuff of my lottery-winning daydreams.

The letterpress I am making at TKPT is grainy and sweet, like homemade fudge. My experiments and accidents produce results that are sometimes sublime and sometimes rubbish (just like my fudge). I have learned to love the inconsistencies and irregularities of text that is born of the marriage of my inexpert enthusiasm and the well worn type I use. While it is always satisfying to pull something approximating an ideal print, it is just as delicious to find beauty in the qualities my teachers and textbook try to avoid.

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