What is it about letterpress that inspires cult-like devotion among its practitioners, and burgeoning curiosity among the rest of us? According to Paul Collier, a “letterpress and typography technician” at Plymouth University in the U.K., “the digital age removes us from tactile, hands-on work, and there’s a longing to get back to that.” Collier is the stately star of a delightful short documentary about letterpress called “Upside Down, Left to Right” (a reference to the backwards-orientation that a letterpress artist must arrange blocks of type into in order to print correctly onto paper). After watching this seven-minute treat, you’ll want to roll up your sleeves and get your hands on some movable type, too.
The artfully shot DSLR documentary has become a staple of online video in the past year or two, but in letterpress, director Danny Cooke has found an ideal subject for the form. Collier’s studio is full of small, lusciously tactile details that really pop when filmed in stately, shallow-focus closeups (the bread and butter of DSLR videography)–things like ink-stained fingerprints, tiny lead slugs of individual letters, quivering blobs of ink, and knurled wood-and-metal equipment. After a few minutes into the film, I think my mouth actually started watering from the sheer sensual pleasure of it all.
It’s a perfect cinematic marriage of form and function, because letterpress itself is enjoying a renaissance in our all-digital age for the same reasons. Collier says that letterpressed designs are almost a kind of sculpture: The metal slugs press ink into the surface of the paper, creating a physical impression that begs to be touched and never renders the same way twice. In our age of laser-printed copies and pictures-under-glass interfaces, Collier says, letterpress “has the wow factor.” Not bad for a 500-year-old technology. Will Photoshop inspire the same kind of reverence a century from now? Somehow, I doubt it.