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SEEN AND NOTED · March 18, 2011

Review of the Documentary “Typeface”

“Letterpress is obsolete, that's what makes it valuable.” I wouldn’t call it obsolete, exactly—perhaps the person misspoke—but I agree, it is very valuable. Even so, technology inevitably marches on. And without documentaries like Typeface spreading the word, people will not know to take time to appreciate this art form.

Much like wood type itself, this film is flawed. But, unlike wood type, not always in a good way.

Several weeks ago I attended a screening of this documentary, which mostly focuses on the Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum. I am obliged to admit, I might not have been the intended audience for this film. I imagine most people reading here are also designers of one sort or another, and would be with me in that category. And I must also admit to having preconceived notions of what this film should be. I thought it would be about the process of making a wood typeface, as the title suggests. Or perhaps it would be about the joy of using a letterpress. Or the lament of its decline. It’s really about all three, but in such a cursory and muddled way that I wasn’t sure what I was watching.

The narrative seemed backward. I felt drawn in at the end, but not at the beginning. Some of the interviews were a little boring—the people didn't seem passionate about what they were talking about, or their personality didn’t transfer to the screen. The film could have benefited from more of a score to highlight the dramatic moments. It came off more as a quirky little stop on someone’s road trip. A brief look into a subject that deserved much more depth.

It must be difficult to capture the absolute pleasure of letterpress without seeing one in person. I was lucky to use a Vandercook in school. The enjoyment is as much tactile as it is visual. There was one instance in the film that came close: someone was squeezing ink onto a palette and the sound picked up the gooey lusciousness. I could feel my fingers wanting to get dirty. But then I’d find myself distracted that a documentary lamenting the demise of an antiquated art form was shot with a digital video camera. I’m sure that was due to budget constraints, but it still took me out of the film.

A Vandercook in action

There were more wonderful moments, and splashes of humor throughout. One student in the film makes a remark that is sure to make seasoned graphic designers burst out laughing. There are a handful of interesting characters that I wish the movie had focused on. Designer Stacey Stern of Steracle really hit the nail on the head for me when she talked about the beauty of decaying wood type, how the flaws are the best part. And on a personal note, I enjoyed seeing TypeCamper Jim Thorpe onscreen.

There were some brief views of what letterpress can produce, but the camera never lingered on these images long enough. And for a documentary named Typeface I found it odd that there was no mention of Matthew Carter’s Van Lanen, a typeface specially designed for Hamilton. It’s seen throughout the film, but only if one knows to look for it.

Van Lanen, a latin by Matthew Carter

I keep comparing this to Making Faces, the recently released documentary about the typeface designer and master letterpress printer Jim Rimmer, which I was lucky to get a taste of in a preview at ATypI Mexico in 2009. Director Richard Kegler’s admiration for his subject is very apparent, and his knowledge of typeface design helps in telling the story. Making Faces is also shot digitally, but because of the love put into it, I have no doubt the format will not matter. I can’t wait for a chance to view the final cut. Stay tuned for my review.

If you love wood type, you might enjoy Typeface for capturing a moment in the Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum’s history (after the documentary was finished, the museum has flourished). But ultimately, its intended audience is people with only a casual interest in type, not genuine enthusiasts. You can catch it on PBS stations in April and see for yourself. The film’s intentions are good, and for that, it should be supported. But don’t expect to be blown away. Seek your closest letterpress printer for that.

Feel free to linger in the glory of this static jpeg!

Images above by Nick Sherman, from the Hamilton Wood Type & Printing Museum.

If you’re in the Boston area, I highly recommend checking out the Museum of Printing in North Andover, and visit Mike Parker’s very own Gordon letterpress.

Photo by Mike Parker


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