LADIES OF LETTERPRESS . . . AND MEN OF OFFSET? // Levi Sherman

01 Apr 2019 12:00 AM | Susan Viguers (Administrator)

The organization Ladies of Letterpress has the tongue in cheek tagline, “dedicated to the proposition that a woman’s place is in the print shop.” My involvement in the book arts community has given me the impression (no pun intended) that letterpress is indeed a woman-dominated area. I’ve decided to see if the numbers confirm that perception, and compare the number of artists’ books letterpress and offset printed by gender. My preliminary research at University of Missouri’s library does show that letterpress is more common in artists’ books by women than men. I will discuss those results and methods in greater detail in my next blog post, but the basic approach is simple – counting artists’ books in collections, dealer/retailer websites and reviews, and noting the gender of the artist and the book’s print production method. I also hope you will help me with this research, which I’ll address at the end of this post. First, a few questions.

Why does this matter?

Gendered presumptions could limit women’s access to, or interest in, offset printing, causing artists to miss out on large press runs, low unit cost, and photographic reproduction. After all, the Ladies of Letterpress tagline was aimed at very real and recent pushback that women artists faced in this field. Additionally, if qualities of letterpress, for example, are theorized reductively in gendered terms, we run the risk of missing those qualities in other processes or failing to notice other qualities and potentialities in letterpress. These concerns also affect the reception (criticism, scholarship, collecting, etc.) of both processes. Gender-biased reception comes, sadly, as no surprise, but a more subtle concern brings me to my next question.

Why am I writing about this on the Book Art Theory Blog?

I believe gendered theorizing of print production may lead critics and scholars to attribute aesthetic considerations to aspects of an artist’s book that are the result of pragmatic, economic factors. Take, for example, the association between letterpress and the oft-spoken phrase “the materiality of language.” Presumably the handling of type, the physical formation of words, make letterpress the perfect tool for exploring this concept. But the materiality of language has as much to do with the fact that written language has a visual form; that it is always also a picture. This important idea can be explored as readily through offset as letterpress, so might the appeal of letterpress lay outside aesthetics?

No doubt any medium or process will have unique features, or a combination of features, but I hope the brief example above shows the value of considering what else may be at play (and at stake). Access to studios and residencies, publishers, training, mentorship and, of course, money all play a role. These elements of production may be especially relevant to letterpress and offset, which have made their way to book arts from the male-dominated commercial printing industry. Museums, galleries, dealers, retailers, collectors, critics and scholars also bring with them gender disparities that I believe must be examined along with purely aesthetic interpretations of an artist’s work. Other studies have examined gender in print production more broadly (like the 2013 APA “State of Letterpress Questionnaire,” created by Kseniya Thomas), and I believe an examination of letterpress and offset within artists’ books specifically will reveal instructive similarities and differences.

Why now?

Neither offset nor letterpress are new to the field, and of course artists all along the gender spectrum have made important contributions in both mediums. However, a look at the gendered distribution of print production more broadly is important at a time when Risograph, print on demand and other technologies are reshaping the field. It is important to understand who has access to production technologies and what systems grant that access, explicitly or through market forces. I’ve focused initially on letterpress and offset for two reasons. First, they are commercial processes that retain gender dynamics from their industrial roots. Second, offset is the new letterpress: cheap presses are plentiful as print shops scrap their offset duplicators for photocopiers. Simple computer-to-plate systems eliminate darkroom pre-press just as photopolymer brought letterpress into the digital world. These presses are powerful tools in the hands of an artist, and book arts will benefit if all artists can adopt and evolve offset the way women have letterpress.

How can you help?

If you make artists’ books, please take the time to fill out this anonymous survey. I’ve listed various print production methods so users can simply enter the numbers of books they have created using each. Users will also write in their gender identity. My survey encompasses all manner of print production methods. My initial analysis will focus on letterpress and offset for the reasons I’ve listed above, but I hope that myself and others will return to this data to learn more about trends in other print production methods. Feedback is welcome. My next post will discuss the challenges with my other research methods, primarily quantitative bibliography, so know that your participation is very valuable.

Note: Thanks to India Johnson for bringing the “State of Letterpress Questionnaire” to my attention. The results can be seen here.


Levi Sherman is an interdisciplinary artist and designer in Columbia, Missouri.


Comments

  • 01 Apr 2019 11:22 AM | Bill Hanscom
    Very interesting post. Looking forward to your future posts on the subject. I will be sure to check out your survey.

    The results of the "State of Letterpress" survey are a bit of a mess, too many singular but similar answers, and the site cuts some of them off or misaligns the answer and its percentage. That's too bad.

    Yours seems like it will hopefully yield cleaner statistics.
    Link  •  Reply
    • 07 Apr 2019 1:34 PM | Levi Sherman
      Thanks, Bill. The State of Letterpress survey was certainly more ambitious, but I do hope this data will yield a narrative even though it's more limited.
      I appreciate your participation!
      Link  •  Reply
  • 04 Aug 2019 6:35 PM | Caren Florance
    I am really interested in your research and look forward to seeing the results of the survey.
    Link  •  Reply
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