Colin Frazer, director and printer of the Press at Colorado College, hobbles around vintage printing machinery in the basement of Jackson House, an old mansion apt for such an operation.
Though the hobbling is only from a cut on his foot, the 28-year-old Frazer still is a character. As he gathers and sets type, his hair sticks out from the side of his head like feathers on a wet bird. He wears brown leather ankle boots and speaks the arcane language of typeset, using phrases like "ball terminal." (I learn this is the little ball that hangs off curved letters like the "s" or "c" in fancy fonts.)
The machines surrounding Frazer are equally archaic. The letterpresses each consist of a flat bed or table in the center of cranks, wheels and rollers that spread the ink onto the letters and then press each paper, one by one, onto the tiny, inky blocks. Sandwiched between those machines is a manual letterpress made in 1895.
At the moment, Frazer's using an electric letterpress, but he will use the manual letterpress when there aren't any students around who might hurt themselves.
"I've seen people who worked on machines like this and lost fingers," says Frazer, a 2002 CC graduate.
Rows of wooden drawers line the back wall of the room, and the whole shop has the feel of a different time period. Fitting, since Frazer says he celebrates a couple historical connections in his work: that between the printed word and the spread of democracy, and also the craftsmanship he carries on for those who manually designed, set and laid out type for books hundreds of years ago.
"Books are objects in a culture today where so many things are digital, where we plow our way through pages of Internet news," he says.
He adds: "There's beauty when you hold something someone else has made."
A letterpress operator presses type into paper, rather than setting ink onto it. Jessy Randall, local poet and special collections curator at CC, says that to print a 20-word, five-line poem, she once spent almost 20 hours setting type.
"You're grabbing these teeny pieces of metal," she says, adding that for 10-point type, she handled metal letters as small as the ones you're reading here. Because the letterpress prints a mirror image, the type gets set upside-down and backward.
Frazer sets type with the antiquated machines, but also etches lithographs, with unique borders and internal designs, to hand-print ornate posters for high-profile speakers visiting his alma mater. Recently, Frazer's created posters advertising CC appearances by Ira Glass, host of the This American Life radio show, and former national poet laureate Billy Collins.
Frazer is also publishing his first book using the letterpress machines, A City as Once Seen: Photographs by Stuart Klipper. It's a collection of 27 gicle prints of New Orleans that Klipper, a visiting professor in CC's art department for 25-plus years, took before Hurricane Katrina. Frazer will print the photos with a laser printer, and will set type for the written responses to five photographs by Louisiana writers.
Frazer says after the hurricane, disaster capitalism flooded the city: "A lot of people who didn't know the city descended on this destructive environment to capture the raw, visceral awfulness that was there."
Klipper's photos celebrate the city as it was before Katrina, capturing why it's important to revitalize, Frazer says.
Klipper is renowned in the international arts community for his photographs of the Antarctic, which he featured in a solo show at New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1991. That year, the Press at Colorado College published his Arctic photos in a hardbound book, Bearing South: Antarctica at Sea.
CC's press was then headed by Jim Trissel, who founded it in 1978. Frazer says that after Trissel passed away in 1999, the press remained largely dormant, save for student use, until 2006, when CC President Dick Celeste raised an endowment to revitalize it. The position was then created for Frazer.
"The press is incredibly special and wonderful because students at CC can have the hands-on experience of studying type and setting type," says Randall. "People normally wouldn't have that experience, even at the Ivy League schools."
According to Frazer, fewer than 20 colleges or universities have working, publishing letterpresses.
When all the work is done for A City, 50 books will have been crafted and covered in purple silk. Frazer is also constructing sleeves for each book, made from wood, copper and other scraps salvaged from New Orleans houses. The prototype he has looks like shipwreck flotsam. Polishing brings out the blemishes, which add character.
The books will sell for $675, with proceeds going to continued relief efforts.
"It's a specialty market," says Frazer. "Only wealthy collectors and special collections libraries will buy it."
The lost art
German inventor Johannes Gutenberg invented moveable type sometime around 1440. According to Randall, moveable, handset type was used exclusively for the next 300 years, prior to lithography, which uses a chemical process to create an image.
Frazer says machines like the linotype made letterpress printing feasible through most of the 20th century. The linotype cast whole lines of text at a time, instead of letter-by-letter. Lithographic presses and letterpresses were used together until the 1970s.
"Once the technology made offset lithography [today's printing practice from plate to rubber to surface] fast enough, it eradicated letterpress," says Frazer.
"No one picks up a letter and puts it into anything; it's all done by computers in big factories," says Randall, who, despite her nostalgia, does celebrate that anyone can now print at big commercial printers like Kinkos.
"With a machine press, you have to buy all the letters for every font. That's why it's a dying art. But I don't know that it will ever completely die off. It's an art and there will always be people doing it, just like people will always want to draw a picture or write a poem."