Andy Crewdson New Series Interview

Questions for Gerald Lange

In the current issue of the fine printing journal Parenthesis Gerald Lange writes: ‘In recent years the productive use of metal type in the overall studio-letterpress community has declined, but to a very great extent this is no longer due just to dwindling resources … the advantages and capabilities of the computer in rendering traditional typography, along with the high printability of photopolymer plates, have proved the process beyond dispute.’ This contention has spurred Lange’s advocacy of the relatively new combination of techniques in which type is composed on a computer, output on film, etched in relief on plastic plates, and then printed by standard letterpress methods. In 2001 Lange’s Bieler Press published the second edition of Printing digital type on the hand-operated flatbed cylinder press, a comprehensive technical monograph on the subject. More recently Lange initiated a discussion list to serve as a resource for printers using photopolymer. Lange has worked as a fine printer for nearly three decades and has taught printing and typography widely. He lives in Southern California.

Andy Crewdson

Printing type from photopolymer plates has become pretty common over the last decade. Do you still encounter many fine printers who object to the use of photopolymer?

Many fine press printer-publishers are using photopolymer (and metal type as well) though there is still some resistance by die-hard traditionalists. The current economic recession has hit this group hard though so it is difficult (in this environment) to gauge how much production is actually being done (with any method). I’d guess half of the printers that fall into the ‘fine press’ category might be using photopolymer regularly and a goodly portion of the rest use it occasionally or have, at least, experimented with it. Most of the few remaining commercial letterpress book printers, such as Bradley Hutchinson and Patrick Reagh, have switched over and were actually among the first to embrace the technology. Much more resistance is to be found among the hobbyists and ‘occasional’ printers. I think that the more commercially successful ‘boutique letterpress’ folks (the Martha Stewart kind of stuff – wedding invitations, party announcements, ‘special’ cards, jar labels, and the like) have switched over as well, even though ‘metal’ is somewhat of a calling card for this group. Outside of the phenomenon of the wood type poster shops, boutique is the only growing sector of profitable letterpress activity. The vast majority of the plate-processing jobs that come through the shop are now for boutique, whereas only a few years ago we were mostly processing for fine bookwork.

So I guess I could safely say that where ongoing production and associated economics come into play photopolymer is much more prevalent. As time progresses, however, and metal type sources become increasingly fugitive, more and more practitioners of studio letterpress will eventually have to come over or be forced over out of necessity. Assuming, of course, that film technology itself remains viable.

Resistance seems entirely based on traditional posing. I attended the Oak Knoll Book Fest a few years back and a hobby printer (and curator of a significant institutional printing collection) came over to my table and spotted my monograph on printing digital type via the letterpress process. He would not even pick up the book, or any of the books produced with the photopolymer plate process, but instead proudly announced himself as a ‘Luddite.’ Just then his pager went off and he had to excuse himself. It will take some folks a bit of time to come to terms with the latter decades of the twentieth century.

I think that there is a strong and somewhat false myth that has grown around letterpress in recent years that has less to do with the quality of the printed page than it does with the idea of surrounding oneself with the accruements of the historical past, even though that past may not be thoroughly understood or is skewed by the mythmaking itself. Current practice seems not as concerned with typography as much as it is with the aura of the technology’s physicality, which can convey an erroneous message. This may also be why so many non-practitioners (and unfortunately, most graphic designers) associate over-inking, broken characters, deep impression, crude composition, etc., with letterpress. To paraphrase Martha, ‘and the wonderful thing about it is how varied each print can be!’

Overlooked in the clamor generated by Martha and her growing minions is that the combination of digital type and letterpress printing with photopolymer plates provides the potential for a considered typography and enhanced printed page that extends far beyond the inherent restrictions of metal type technology. This is a marginal vision obviously, but fine press printing has always occupied a very narrow spectrum of letterpress. It does not look like that has changed, or likely ever will. To some extent the value of the fine press/private press has often been questioned, ever since Morris/Walker, et al. If I remember correctly, Robin Kinross takes a similar stance in his Modern typography. Though I find this to be wrongly dismissive, and oddly so, because a reasoned consideration of it might provide more support to his overall thesis.

There was actually a short article not long ago in The New York Times about what you call ‘boutique’ letterpress and it included that Martha Stewart quote. (‘[Letterpress] has personality and individualism … Each [letterpress-printed item] is slightly different.’) The Times writer also quotes a buyer of ‘letterpressed’ items as praising the printing method for its ‘tactile’ and ‘sculptural’ qualities – two of the words that frequently get used fetishistically in connection with letterpress. It seems like the use of ‘letterpress’ as a verb especially rankles some fine printers, maybe because it typifies the boutique mentality and its overemphasis on physical aspects.

But despite the trend you describe where letterpress has become an unthinking process, separated from the tradition of printing and employed superficially, it also sounds like fine printers may now have better tools for producing good work than ever before. The ability to do refined digital typography and to print this from photopolymer seems to have lots of potential for exploitation by the makers of books. Would it be right to say that though letterpress printing has now reached a sort of low point, where it is used in a debased way only for effect, it has at the same time become capable of an unprecedented degree of sophistication through the combined use of computers and photopolymer plates?

I would certainly agree that when the process is used for effect, as if the process itself were the aesthetic, yes, that is quite a low point. But that is also part of the times we live in. The art world embraces this. Imagine though, how the early metal type printers must have felt when the latent wood block book printers emerged and quickly took the new and quite successful concept of book printing right down to its lowest common denominator. It became economically pointless to put out the kind of incredible effort that went into the 42-line Bible and the Mainz Psalter. The architects of these books were quite aware that the process was only good enough if it were capable of rendering an artifact that captured the glory of the model, in this case, the hand-written manuscript book. And they were able to accomplish this, but in doing so they were not in anyway concerned with the tactile and sculptural nature of metal type or that effect on the page. In fact, it was the unsolvable ‘problem,’ and remained so throughout most of printing’s history. We have come to accept this effect as the inexplicable beauty of the letterpress printed page but, unfortunately, the effect itself has somehow taken center stage.

It should be said though that while current letterpress practices (which a correspondent of mine delightfully terms ‘post-letterpress’) are largely atypographic, there has always been poor printing and poor typography, ever since mechanical letterforms were introduced. But it certainly is frustrating today to see crude and poorly executed work masquerading as the essence of letterpress typography, especially when, as you have surmised, the current technologies we have available for typographic relief printing are capable of yielding the finest work yet possible. The problem now, however (and I’m sure you’d just as soon I not go there), is almost the opposite facing that of the earliest of printers: there is no model to emulate.

But let’s make the leap of faith here and assume that there is a rationale and affirmation for – and in – doing work that is ‘careful,’ as Saul Marks modestly claimed for his own typography-printing, and further, that there are those out there who are cognizant enough to even recognize these efforts.

Having now the highly sophisticated tools of digital type and typographic software, as well as the ability to transform the work produced with them to the printed page (with the relief surface provided by photopolymer plates), is indeed potential beyond dream, but these do not in themselves create ‘good’ work. That is up to the practitioner. Fine press book printing, no matter which tools and techniques, is not an easy or even a rewarding task. And these new tools and techniques do not simplify the process, as many wrongly assume, but rather complicate the task even more so. Good work and bad work is all done the same way, but there are many more steps taken during the work sequence to ensure the former, and most practitioners are simply not up to this, for one good or bad reason or another.

Your point about how new techniques do not necessarily simplify the work leads into what I wanted to ask about the problems with making digital typefaces work when printed letterpress. Would you explain why it is important to tune most digital typefaces for relief printing and briefly summarize the process you follow in doing this? Can you speculate on how widely font editing is being practiced by printers using photopolymer plates?

The relief printing process is unique in that the letterform is subject to a thickening effect caused by increased impression and accumulating ink gain. In addition, there can be a uniform gain of as much as five percent from film negative to photopolymer plate during exposure depending upon processing variables. Essentially, the letterforms’ main strokes need to be thinned out a bit to compensate, without which the exactness of character outline will be distorted on the printed page. While some adjustment can be made during exposure, most digital fonts need to be altered with font editing software such as Fontographer or FontLab. Other fonts such as Multiple Masters can be adjusted with the software that is supplied with them. There are also anomalies: fonts that can be used without alteration, such as those produced by Lanston Type Foundry (which had access to Lanston Monotype’s original brass master patterns) and the Monotype Typography fonts (some of which are fairly direct copies of the metal typefaces). I’ve printed Lanston’s Caslon Oldstyle No. 337 and Monotype Pastonchi without alteration and they performed well. Monotype Centaur actually prints better via the photopolymer process than it ever did with metal because the inherent weaknesses that were incorporated into the design of the metal letterforms are inadvertently strengthened with the differing printing surface structure. In this regard, typefaces that are almost too thin and anemic for laser printing will often work well without adjustment.

In addition to basic configuration for letterpress there are more sophisticated typographic concerns that should be considered, such as optical scaling and optimization as well as minute adjustments to the letterforms themselves, such as the incorporation of ink traps and supports. These are techniques, however, that require the abilities of someone well acquainted with letterform design. Any of these alterations are not meant to disturb the letterform but rather to bring it back to where it should be when it appears on the printed page. Since the Multiple Master format/software anticipates user interpolation, these fonts are easily configured. Those equipped with weight, width, and optical scale axes are especially useful for optimizing small text sizes where opened counters, increased color, and expanded width are of concern.

A growing number of foundries are releasing faces with a form of built-in optimization. This is usually in the form of multiple size re-designs. (I suspect we will see further development of this with typeface designs offered in the OpenType format.) The Rialto font, by the Austrian foundry dfTYPE, is particularly interesting in this regard, especially the variant Rialto Pressa, which is quite singular in that it was designed for letterpress and includes built-in ink traps. Also unique is Founder’s Caslon by Justin Howes, which offers true optical sizing, each of its 13 size offerings from 8 to 72 point are re-designs based on historical specimens and proofs of the original metal typefaces. I think it should be said that these are concerns that were rarely addressed by most twentieth century producers of metal type.

There are other compositional considerations as well. These are usually in the form of size ranking and transpositions to facilitate a uniform color and harmony to the page. As such, these adjustments are made either with font editing software or directly in the page-layout program. These would include, besides kerning or building of kerning pairs, minute size reduction and/or weight transpositions in punctuation, figures and other symbols, uppercase and/or small text lowercase letterforms, vertical characters, etc. For the most part these are adjustments that in a perfect typographic world would have been part of the typeface design in the first place but, with notable exception, invariably are not.

When I configure a digital font for letterpress I will normally also create a number of variants to provide a certain level of optical sizing, for special characters, small text, text, larger display, titling, etc. This can only be taken so far though as at some point the letterform outline will become disturbed and begin to break up. Given this limitation, the increasing concern toward optimization shown by certain foundries is a good sign. I am not a type designer, and have never had the inclination, so my level of understanding of letterform construction and font editing programs is limited to what I need from them as a typographer-printer. I will rarely alter a font beyond a slight stroke weight reduction (or addition), which is a fairly quick and simple procedure (though it may be a bit daunting at first). I know there are a number of other fine press printers who also concerned with optimizing their digital output but to what extent it is happening I could not say. I suspect most probably do not. In many cases this is due to a lack of knowledge or concern, in others the time spent might not be thought justifiable in terms of economics and market.

It sounds like there are several factors that could hinder the more widespread use of properly adjusted types by letterpress printers. The font editing technique you describe above (and also discuss in Printing digital type on the hand-operated flatbed cylinder press) would be easy for someone familiar with the software, but I would guess it might be too involved for many printers. Maybe a better solution would be for printers to be supplied with types designed just for letterpress. What do you think of the prospects for a new niche geared to the production of faces for photopolymer plate printing? Would it just be a question of making type designers aware of the demand while also telling fine printers of the availability of the types?

Well, given market exigencies, I can’t imagine that type designers would bother to make typefaces designed for letterpress. In the examples I gave there were specific reasons for the type to have an affinity to letterpress but these are fonts that must also perform well in the normal market. This would need to be the primary consideration for any type designer.

The Rialto typeface was developed for Die Fischbachpresse, a fine press that uses the photopolymer plate process for letterpress. The special letterpress version Rialto Pressa was the result of field-testing the face on the printing press. But still, the fonts had to sell in the normal market to justify the effort that went into it. Justin Howes felt his Founder’s Caslon should ideally be printed letterpress because, as he suggested, Caslon looks best impressed into handmade paper. At one time he was even considering letterpress configuration. But the problem facing any of today’s type designers would be: how do you design a typeface for letterpress? It is not simply just a matter of thinning out the strokes a bit such as I proffer in my font-editing sequence, ink traps, supports, and the like, are really the key. But from what I can tell most designers have no knowledge of these techniques. For me, the ongoing concern for optimization is the most satisfactory answer.

On the other hand there is some activity in the field related to letterpress. I note from the recent ATypI conference proceedings that dfTYPE is producing another typeface. I’d assume they would develop it along the lines of Rialto. There are a couple of other ad hoc projects going on as well, though I am not at liberty to discuss these. But any of these fonts are going to be much more expensive than what most folks are used to paying, if they are used to paying at all. And most folks don’t buy typefaces for their technical qualities – they buy them for their look. A significant consideration, as letterpress folks tend to be a bit traditional in their tastes. Fortunately, in this regard, the current aesthetic (neo-classic) is about right. Heck, after some 27 years in the biz, I’m finally in style!

But the market is not well known for supporting high-end quality technological efforts. The Apple font format QuickDraw GX is an infamous example. Adobe’s now discontinued Multiple Master font technology is yet another. I think I have about three dozen MM fonts and as far as I know, that is about how many were produced throughout the ’90s. The other night I was looking at The Golden Master CD Apple had supplied to beta testers and I thought, my god, that was 1994, and we don’t have anything like that today. GX fonts were essentially user configurable TrueType fonts with, in some designs, capabilities for extrapolation from the mid-point of the range rather than interpolation from the extreme points as in the MM PostScript model. I suspect the subtlety of this might have had some potential for letterpress configuration.

Despite all the hoopla surrounding OpenType, I haven’t seen any technical wizardry that applies to the letterforms themselves. And yet these too are based on the TrueType structure. How OT fonts perform in programs such as InDesign is another consideration entirely. But I think type designers are at this point just looking at the expanded character set capabilities, if that. Adobe has now converted its entire line and in doing so has provided some OT typefaces that are optically optimized, but that seems to be about it. Perhaps that’s enough. On the other hand, Apple has never forgotten, forgiven, or given up on GX. I find it a bit odd and perhaps telling that the developers’ tools for GX are still stocked on their web site along with their AAT tools. One of these days, in one of the near OS revisions, surprise, surprise?

I do a lot of evangelizing among the letterpress community – that’s essentially what I’m up to with the monograph publications, the group sites, the writing, the teaching, and the web tramping. I suspect it has sold a few fonts here and there. But most folks probably just think I’ve got a stick up my butt. How do you raise the consciousness of type designers? That I don’t know. You seem to be doing a pretty good job with this. I’m just thankful and grateful that there are a few out there who do understand their heritage and the gift that has been handed down to them. And who would like to do a little more and give a little back because of that concern.

You announced last year that you will be writing and publishing a new monograph dealing partly with some of the topics you have discussed above. Can you explain what this upcoming publication will cover and say who it is intended for? In the pre-prospectus announcement you mention ‘an examination of the composition of typographers such as Saul Marks.’ What makes Marks’s approach to typography exceptional?

The working title of the forthcoming monograph is Letterpress typographic design strategies in the digital environment. This is more high-end than the previous monograph as it deals with the application of theoretical approaches to letterpress when using digital type and typographic software. I’m focusing on digital compositional and typographic design strategies specific to the requirements and restrictions of letterpress technology and operations. As such it is a sequence of deliberations rather than a typography primer. These are just some things that I felt needed to be said and presented. There will be some overlap with Printing digital type on the hand-operated flatbed cylinder press but it is not intended as an expanded version of it by any means. I’m not exactly sure who the target audience is but from the response to the preliminary announcement I’d say it would be a healthy mix of photopolymer letterpress folks and curious digital typographers. But it is a why and how-to type of book, with a lot of the usual technical information.

The technical concerns that I elaborate on are, however, based on developed theory regarding the essential organic nature of letterforms and the consequences of their mechanical transformation into physical form. I don’t deal with the historical aspects of that except as background. Though I could perhaps go on about some of that a bit more here.

The considerations of early-to-mid-twentieth century typographic apostles such as Tschichold are certainly still the basis for ‘correct’ mechanical compositional strategies as we know them today and as any and every type primer reiterates. However, the governing precepts of legibility and readability (i.e. concern for the reader) which are often bandied about may be wrongly appropriated. These in and of themselves are not Renaissance ideals – the supposed rationale for the traditional approach to typographic composition, if not traditional typography itself. (I understand ‘readership,’ as a concern, to be of mid nineteenth-century origin.) Nevertheless, this would be the ‘stylistic’ practice of a typographer-printer such as Marks and those of us who follow in his and others’ paths. How much does this style itself relate to fine letterpress printing? In the sense that letterpress is the foundation technology, and that mechanical technologies have specific limitations, perhaps a great deal.

Saul Marks is an interesting example for me in that his typographic repertoire is largely revealed through the intricacies of his Monotype composition. He set up his own unique typesetting regiment through the modification of his mat cases. He used substitution to get to typographic refinements that today are easily accomplished (though rarely practiced) with digital software. Size and weight ranking, transpositions, positional adjustment, etc., were the primary tactics. For instance, if the 12 point period visually appeared a bit obtrusive on the printed page – often a technical consideration, not merely an aesthetic choice – he pulled the matrix and substituted that with an 11 period, sometimes from another typeface if that served the purpose. Interestingly, he would have had to buy 11/12 matrices specifically for this purpose. In addition, capitals were routinely reduced, small caps slightly increased. The usual text figures, small cap treatments, etc., were used but with some interesting touches. And he was very conscientious and consistent about it all. With notable exception, I have rarely seen this kind of attention to detail in the work of other fine printers. Nor a similar pre-digital configuration automated to deliver it as such. One hesitates to hold hands with those from another era, but I wonder what he would think about the direction digital typography is taking.

That his and much other twentieth century fine typography and printing was based on the interpreted aesthetic of the Aldine work is not insignificant. Aldus is, after all, the prevailing model – the beginning and the end. So, yes, I’m saying there is a given. And yes, on the surface it is just stylistic appropriation. But it is not without some foundation. The relatively short-lived gothico-roman typefaces of incunabula (most notably from Sweynheym and Pannartz at Subiaco to Jenson in Venice) are more revealing of the rationale, perhaps more so than that of the earlier Mainz work (though I hesitate to discount from this Schöffer’s incredible textura – the well-spring). The shift in the type road, however, is quite vivid and profound during this transitional period to Aldus. The limitations of the material-based form were clearly perceived and masterly subverted in deference to the organic forms of the practiced eye and hand – but not subordinated to them. And I think this is important. This, to me, is where typography originates, even though this is also why it deviates.

Should the tenets of early typography be an underlying consideration in manipulating digital type to print appropriately when used for letterpress printing? I’m not sure we really have much of anything else to base it on. And why is this ‘better’? To maintain that one does studio letterpress or fine printing for pleasure or craft or other form of personal gain or to drag out the usual esoteric pap or self-serving hype in justification simply begs further question.

Some two hundred plus years following the European development of printing with movable type, Joseph Moxon, the author of the first thorough manual on printing, had no clue as to the organic origins of metal ‘letters.’ He thought instead that ancient masters had developed them from geometric constructs. And by Moxon’s time the singular beauty and typographic nuance of early printing was long lost, and would remain so for another two hundred plus years. Until the light cast by Emery Walker’s slide lantern lecture. Or so the myth goes.

Posted January 17, 2003 at

Update: Andy Crewdson's new-series is now defunct but commentary on this interview can be found at Speak Up.