Obsolescence is just the beginning, Peter Simpson

Director of The Holloway Press Peter Simpson celebrates the joy of letterpress.

The Holloway Press is dedicated to letterpress printing, a technology rendered largely obsolete by the dawn of the digital age. Letterpress printing – that is, the direct impression of inked movable-type onto paper – had a long innings, stretching from the world-changing innovations of Gutenberg in the 15th century until, so to speak, the day before yesterday. The writing was on the wall for letterpress printing once metal type was replaced first by lithographic offset printing from the end of the 19th century and then more recently (and terminally) by computer typesetting – a manifestly faster and cheaper way of operating.

When print shops began dumping letterpress machinery, cylinder proof presses such as Vandercooks and Littlejohns (compact and serviceable machines used to run off proofs before committing copy to large automatic presses) were snapped up by artisan printers like Alan Loney and Tara McLeod, who valued letterpress, not for antiquarian or hobbyist reasons, but because of the superior results it could achieve.

Invited to explain the rationale of The Holloway Press, I often quote a mantra of the prophet of the digital age, Marshall McLuhan: “When technology becomes obsolete for industry it becomes available for art.” I no longer recall the source of this statement or even if I’ve remembered it correctly. The closest McLuhan comment I can find on Google is, “Obsolescence never meant the end of anything, it’s just the beginning”, which amounts to much the same thing.

To printers such as Loney (co-founder of The Holloway Press in 1994) and McLeod (the press’s main printer since 2001), the appeal of letterpress printing is that it achieves effects unavailable to more modern printing methods. This is because it is a relief method, in which an impression is formed on the paper, not a flat or planographic method in which the ink sits on the surface. With letterpress the metal type bites into the surface, literally cutting the fibres of the paper, thus achieving a crisp, tactile, three-dimensional effect.

However, while purists may disapprove, small presses increasingly utilise some elements of digital technology. Holloway books such as Searchings (2006) by Max Gimblett and Alan Loney and Under New Stars: Poems of the New Zealand Exile by Karl Wolfskehl (2012, see p7) are printed not from metal type but from photopolymer plates using text initially set up on a computer. Photopolymers are also the usual method now of reproducing images, as compared to the wooden blocks or photolithographically produced metal blocks of earlier times. The photopolymers function in much the same manner as formes of metal type and achieve the same desired effect of a relief impression as traditional letterpress.

Of course, in addition to the printing of words and images, much else goes into the make-up of fine printed small-press books, including the careful choice of paper and ink, the design of the book – from title page to the imposition of the type on the individual pages – and the selection of appropriate binding material. Attention to all of these is necessary if a high-quality product – the book as itself a work of art – is to be achieved.

To elaborate briefly on just one of these elements: the choice of paper. Have you noticed how quickly some commercially produced books (not just paper-backs) begin to show their age?

The variable longevity of different papers was brought home to me by Kendrick Smithyman’s rare first publication Seven Sonnets, published by Bob Lowry’s Pelorus Press in 1947. Poor quality paper was used (a consequence of post-war paper shortage, no doubt) and, although the typography is distinguished enough, my precious copy has almost disintegrated. I was amazed to see copies of Seven Sonnets in Smithyman’s own library that were printed on hand-made paper. After 50 years the books were still in pristine condition, a vivid reminder of the importance of using quality materials. Small press books may be expensive, due to the cost of materials and use of labour-intensive methods, but they will last for centuries.

Mentioning Lowry calls to mind another aspect of Holloway’s ethos. In our literary history there has been a close and sometimes symbiotic relationship between writers and printers. Lowry himself (at first in partnership with Ron Holloway) printed the first books of Allen Curnow, Frank Sargeson, Roderick Finlayson, Smithyman, Hubert Witheford, Helen Shaw and Maurice Duggan. Mentored by Lowry, Denis Glover emulated his feats at The Caxton Press in Christchurch. Glover – partnered from 1938 by Leo Bensemann – brought to his printing a similarly up-to-date knowledge of modern typography and a refined sense of design. Of course, Glover and Bensemann were authors (or artists) of some books as well as their designers and printers. The existence of Caxton was vital to the literary careers of many notable writers of that period, from Ursula Bethell to Janet Frame. In all likelihood, without these printers some at least of their books would never have appeared.

This same creative relationship between printer and writer was replicated in a later generation by Loney, who at Hawk Press published Ian Wedde, Alan Brunton, Murray Edmond, Joanna Paul, Bill Manhire, Elizabeth Smither, Russell Haley and others, as well as his own poetry.

The Holloway Press consciously acknowledges this tradition in publishing texts and/or images (often previously unpublished and unsuited to commercial publication) by Robin Hyde, R A K Mason, Curnow, Bensemann, Duggan, Frame, Len Lye, Charles Brasch, Colin McCahon, Charles Spear and others. But the Press also engages with our contemporaries, such as (to mention a few) Michele Leggott, Murray Edmond, Gregory O’Brien, David Howard and Martin Edmond (forthcoming) among writers, and Gretchen Albrecht, Caroline Williams, Tony Lane, Gimblett, Mari Mahr and Peter Ransom (among artists). There’s no point in making physically beautiful books just to keep letterpress printing alive as museum pieces in the digital age;  the material printed must be fully worthy of the cost and effort involved.

 

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