Conference Report: Transformations in Letterpress Printing, HU Berlin, 9-10 June 2016

Guest post by Katharina Walter, Cluster of Excellence “Image Knowledge Gestaltung. An Interdisciplinary Laboratory”, Humboldt-Universität Berlin

The history of analogue printing and the question of its significance in an age of digital media are issues that, more than ever, exercise minds in both cultural and scientific fields of research as well as typographic practice. At least this is the impression one gains from the widespread appreciation shown at “Transformations in Letterpress Printing”. The conference was staged under the direction of Prof. Christian Kassung and Katharina Walter of the base project “Matter of Typography” at the Excellence Cluster “Image Knowledge Gestaltung”, an Interdisciplinary Laboratory within the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin. The event focused on two central questions: what, in fact, do we know about letterpress printing in the past and its historical transformations; and on what authority is our knowledge based? Under what conditions are its techniques and practices carried on and, perhaps, further developed today?

It seems that what we profess to know about printing rests mainly on the techniques and practices of the most recent practitioners of the craft. Christoph Reske, an expert at the Mainz Institute for Book Studies, gave this assessment in his opening lecture, which turned a fiercely critical eye on historical validity in the appraisal of printing. Manual typesetting as practised by today’s compositors can hardly be said to constitute a body of factual knowledge about early letterpress printing. Reske’s lecture concentrated historiographically on the first two decades of printing (approx. 1450-1470), which are problematic for historiographers in that well-substantiated source material is elusive. Comparative methods and digital processes were used to draw conclusions on printed artefacts about the contexts of their making and specific printing procedures.

In contrast, the laborious development of mechanical composition between the 1820s and 1890s is recorded in far greater detail, according to the printer and historian Eckehart SchumacherGebler of the Offizin Haag-Drugulin printing office in Dresden. The decades-long dawning of mechanical type-setting reflects the growing societal meaning of newspaper printing and the increasing density of information, both in spatial and temporal terms, brought about by the popular press.

The indexing and preservation of knowledge about letterpress printing are not achieved by explicit historiographical means alone, but through the practical, implicit activity inhering in the determined continuation of the techniques and practices themselves. The cultural and political commitment of France’s Imprimerie Nationale is a case in point. Nelly Gable is a punchcutter and heads the Cabinet des Poinçons there. As a means of conveying the nature of her craft, the unscripted simulation of the table at which she works made compulsive viewing. Her tasks include the remaking of damaged letter punches from historical collections going back well into the 17th century, as well as cutting new fonts from the digital templates created by graphic designers.

The audience was shown an entirely unique manner of experimental research into historical punch cutting and type founding by Fred Smeijers, type designer and Professor at HfGB Leipzig (Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst). Using blocks, punches, matrices and drawings from the 15th and 16th centuries, he seeks to reconstruct, in a quasi archaeological manner, the technical and material circumstances surrounding the manufacture of type in those times and to experiment with the potential they afforded. This has allowed researchers to modify the over-hasty attribution of the aesthetics of a particular font to purely extrinsic factors, for instance legibility, through a consideration of cutting and typefounding procedures.

The materials scientist Oliver Hahn, who heads the department of “Kunst- und Kulturgutanalyse” (Analysis of art and cultural artefacts) at the Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing and is a professor at Universität Hamburg, revealed another completely fresh, natural science perspective on the historiography of letterpress printing. He brought to the fore the analysis of ink and paper and their meeting in artefacts. The history of the technical and practical evolution of printing is, in this perspective, always an epistemological story of chemical and physical circumstances, interrelations, reactions and aesthetic effects.

Annette Ludwig, Director of the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz, gave voice to the printing museum as an institute of research, conservation and teaching on letterpress printing. She provided an insight into the restructuring of the museum. In future, there will be a greater interlinking of the content of main themes such as the techniques and aesthetics of printing, craft traditions, communication channels, economic aspects and technological transfer across cultural and temporal boundaries. The heterogeneity of the collections will moreover be used to convey more complex connections within media and communications history, up to the present day.

In his evocative evening lecture, “Memories of Type”, James Mosley, a historian of typography and professor emeritus of the University of Reading (UK), gave a vivid account of his personal memories in the field, covering a broad historical panorama of influential typographers and the glorious fonts that have left their mark, and which have been collected, cast or printed by him. Professor Mosley conjured up the special materiality and specific aesthetics of letterpress, which he said must be heeded as a material record by today’s typographers and those of the future. This brought us to the second major theme of the conference, letterpress printing in the digital age.

The great revolution in media came in the middle of the 20th century with the change from hot type to phototype setting and the virtual movability of type and its spacing, anticipating the characteristics of digital media. This was the theme of a lecture by Katharina Walter, cultural scientist and typographer at Humboldt Universität zu Berlin. To be able to grasp this model and accord it its due importance in the history of media, she suggested that photo typesetting be released from its previous bracketing within printing history and regarded as a media technique in which photography – the forming of images – and typography – the forming of writing – converged into a new hybrid medium, heralding the virtualisation of print even before the advent of digital typesetting. The historical description and analysis of printing in the 20th century could not then be regarded in isolation from other media.

Wolfgang Coy, emeritus professor of Informatics at Humboldt Universität zu Berlin, also took up the issue of a prematurely diagnosed historical antagonism between analogue and digital typography, bringing mathematics into play. He reflected on the type area as a mathematical, calculable construct in its historical development since the Middle Ages and paid particular attention to the moment at which the disruptive force of the computer signalled the arrival of new, non-paper media on the scene. Once flexible, user-adapted type areas were introduced, the authority of the professional typographer was undermined. To regain some of this lost authority, Coy proposes implementing an auto-corrective function, re-introducing the use of typographic rules via software.

The conference ended with insights into the current status of analogue printing and its chances of economical viability in a market dominated by inexpensive digital media. The book printer and journalist Martin Z. Schröder then spoke about his observations and experience. For him, the “luxury of nostalgia” is attached to artisanal printed matter and is its aura. The general trend of our times is for the individual product with a provenance; and this is telling a story. Printing, with its quite distinct quality of solidity, is growing in people’s esteem and itself being stylised to form a brand.

Following this, the typographer and designer Erik Spiekermann laid down the markers for printing going forward, declaring the era of hot type at an end; nonetheless letterpress printing most definitely has a future. His Galerie P98a opened in Berlin three years ago as an experimental space for a new variant of printing which integrates digital typesetting and uses illuminated polymer plates to achieve a print-like effect. The aim is to provide a quality superior to offset printing at a reasonable price. The conference culminated in a group visit to Galerie P98a.

The interdisciplinary approach of the conference brought together diverse aspects of historical and contemporary printing. In a concluding discussion, the necessity of continuing trans-disciplinary work on this theme was stressed; and with regard to the future conservation and teaching of historical printing artefacts and techniques, it was suggested that strong networks and more intensive exchanges of information take place between the German museums of printing.


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