Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Ampersand with Flourish

I'm not gonna lie, my purpose was twofold.

Being the documentary dork that I am, I can honestly say I was jazzed to see that there was going to be a screening of "Pressing On: The Letterpress Film" at the Byrd tonight. Why not, with a subject that not only interested me but one that I know so little about?

But it certainly didn't hurt that after years, nay, decades, of sitting in the Byrd's rickety, scratchy, busted springs, torn pleather seats, I was completely stoked to sit in one of the chairs installed since I was there last Monday.

Hallelujah and pass the buttered popcorn, it felt miraculous.

As if just not having to work around the uncomfortable, protruding parts wasn't enough of a gift, there was the unimaginable: leg room, a cup holder and even a wider seat. I took mine for a test sit, bouncing just a little so I could feel the springs respond and not play dead like on the old ones.

They're not the eye candy the old seats were - I seriously doubt they make 'em like they used to - but butts don't care about visuals.

It was in such comfort and spaciousness that I got to see the Richmond premiere of "Pressing On," presented on a city-to-city tour by its producer and co-director. Their first order of business was drooling over the Byrd Theater's historic grandeur, saying "This is the coolest theater we've screened in."

A series of former pressmen (some second and third generation), press collectors, young artists discovering letterpress, a guy who repairs old presses and others took us through the history of the letterpress and why it's so important we don't let the old machines wind up in landfills or rusting in basements.

One pressman marveled that the young are fascinated by the obsolete technology, attracted to the physicality of having to move to do it, rather than just pushing a button on a computer. Another old-timer, said, "Twenty, thirty years ago, I thought letterpress would die with me."

Happily, that no longer is the case.

Naturally we heard about how Gutenberg's printing press had changed the course of culture, allowing people access to words formerly interpreted by priests. But also it represented the sheer explosion of information that could now be printed and disseminated.

Because old type is wearing out and new type needs to be made, there are now guys working diligently to repair old machines - apparently built to last multiple lifetimes - and return them to serviceability.

A lot of the people in the room seemed to be in the graphic design fields and you could see them nod or murmur when things like that were mentioned in the film.

One of the more fascinating aspects of it was not only the devotion it inspired in people, but the early attraction. One man shared that he began working at his local printing press when he was 10. "And when I turned 16, they began paying me for it."

Just about everyone interviewed was adamant that old presses not end up in museums - the Smithsonian was specifically mentioned - where they would sit unused, a consideration a non-printer such as myself wouldn't have thought of.

The point was also made that these days, event posters are made for celebrating and commemorating, not for advertising purposes since that's now mostly done online. It's not like even 10 years ago, when I would make sure to read every telephone pole's posters as I walked by so I'd know about any interesting shows coming up.

I'd be inclined to say that we're kind of spoiled in Richmond because the print collective Studio Two Three has been offering classes and making presses available to the community for, what, a decade now. I've purchased several posters from them over the years, attracted to their singularity, flaws and all, which is something you can't get with digital reproduction which always looks the same.

Damn conformity.

It was mainly the passion of everyone in the film that made it so engaging for a non-printer. I mean, when a person says he intends to keep printing until the hearse shows up, clearly he's doing something he loves.

Whereas what I love is watching yet another nerdy documentary, but in a seat so comfortable I don't leave with cramps in my butt cheeks for a change.

Instead, what I do leave with is a newfound appreciation for why old presses are getting new lives: for the love of printing.

And truly, is there a better reason for doing anything than love?

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