With her permission, I am copying one of Gwen McManus’ recent first reflective fieldbook entries as a model of the genre.
Why we love analog things
While reading about the past and present of letterpress printing, I was struck by how far it fell as a medium before its resurgence. In both Wired and The Economist, there is mention of the 1980s-90s as the onset of the “computer revolution”, when many letterpress studios were shut down and “uncountable tons of type were thrown into dumps”. I struggle to imagine any technology we have now being so widely abandoned only to bounce back after several decades. Maybe this is because the way technology changes now feels very different from the way it changed before everything was digital - the shift from letterpress to word processing represents a very tangible change, moving from something very tactile and physical to something that feels much less real. Current technological advances aren’t taking us beyond the digital age, only refining it. Something loosely comparable might be the loss of physical buttons on almost all cell phones, but that still feels nowhere near as drastic as the phasing out of letterpress.
From our readings and class discussions, it is clear that a significant part of the reason for letterpress’ reawakening is its tactile appeal. In her article How I Came to Love the En Space, Lindsay Lynch’s account of her experience with letterpress relies heavily on her sense of touch. By describing the process of disassembly after printing as “going letter by letter and space by space, putting each bit of metal and wood type back into its correct drawer or cubby”, she emphasizes how a typesetter must individually interact with hundreds of tiny pieces. After we had the chance to do typesetting ourselves these past few weeks, this quote from Lynch feels very evocative; I can feel the tiny pieces of type between my fingers, and hear the sounds of the letters clinking against each other as you rifle through the drawer.
It’s easy to understand why this type of hands-on experience would keep people coming back to the letterpress, even when there are cheaper, faster, and easier options for producing similar content. I realized that it’s not just letterpress - there are a wide range of artistic tools still in use today which have become functionally obsolete because of advancements in digital technology. In particular, photography is a medium where the old ways are arguably just as popular as, if not more popular than, the new ways. Analog photography, particularly with Polaroid cameras, is wildly popular among this generation. Almost all of us have a better camera in our pocket, but we like to take a picture and then hold it in our hands or hang it on the wall. I even have a small printer that lets me print pictures from my phone, which to me feels like mixing traditional with digital. We’ve done this with other ‘vintage’ technology - turntables, which can now include things like Bluetooth connectivity, come to mind - and even with letterpress. The use of photopolymer to make type that can be easily replaced is a solution to the debossing trend that would not have been possible in the original heyday of the letterpress.
Our obsession with these newly-refurbished old-school tools could be considered indicators of the “digital fatigue” mentioned in The Economist. They might also be trends born from a love of “vintage” things or a feeling of nostalgia (regardless of whether or not the users were alive during the technology’s heyday). I have mixed thoughts about digital fatigue; as I mentioned in my reading prep, there are many members of this generation who can, and do, spend most of their time at a screen. Those who flock toward letterpress printing or darkroom photography are more likely to have already been artists of some sort, people who want to get their hands dirty making physical art. That’s not to say that artists are far removed from modern technology at all - the world of digital art is thriving, and I know plenty of artists, myself included, who will spend hours hunched in front of a screen just like anyone else. I think the resurgence of these more tactile methods of artistic expression would be much more unwelcome if they were forced upon all of us; the fact that we know we have the choice, if digital fatigue ever comes knocking, is what makes their appeal so great.