Letterpress My Way

One of my recent obsessions is handmade books as a vehicle for my palladium and cyanotype prints. To complete the “handmade-ness” of these objects, I’ve learned the venerable craft of handset letterpress.

I started this journey a couple of years ago by taking a letterpress workshop taught by the amazing Eric Johnson at Iota Press. I did a few projects there using their presses and type before deciding I wanted the ability to do this in my studio. The problem was that I needed a press that could accommodate 10×20″ spreads. Not only are these machines very hard to find, at that size they are very expensive and too large for my studio.

After a lot of research and discussion with Eric I decided to buy a small etching press and modify it to handle letterpress. I purchased a Blick 906 press for about $900. A real letterpress machine would have cost many times that much.

The challenge with any letterpress machine is that you are dealing with tolerances of a few thousandth of an inch so you have to have a lot of control – etching presses are not typically used that way.  Here is my press:


The most important addition I made to the press was to have two “bearer bars” machined at exactly .918″, so-called “type high”. The lead type used in letterpress is this height so it was critical that I had bars of steel on either side of the press bed that would support the cylinder at exactly the right height so that the right pressure could be applied evenly to the paper. I had these machined in Arizona for about $100. You can see them gleaming just outside the top and bottom edge of the galley in this picture:


This is a text block I printed this morning, a colophon page in my latest book. All the blocks of wood and metal surrounding it are called “furniture”. Everything gets locked in tight, first while the fonts are hand-inked with brayers and then later when the paper and “packing” are placed carefully on top of the type and run through the press under the pressure of the cylinder. Packing is sheets of paper placed on top of the paper you’re printing on to create the desired impression.

Hand inking with soft brayers is also a challenge, I’m still developing the right touch to do that evenly. There are definitely some tricks to doing this right as well!


One of the cool things about letterpress is that you get to use actual lead type. At first it’s pretty tedious to set the type letter by letter, but once you’ve done it enough you memorize where each letter is in the cases and it goes pretty quickly (not like using Microsoft Word but more fun!). Here is a case of my go-to text font, Bembo 12, designed in 1929.


We are fortunate to live in the same town as one of the few remaining font foundries in the world, Pat Reagh Printers in Sebastopol. Pat is a true master of  letterpress and a great guy as well. His shop is of historical importance in this field. It’s surprisingly inexpensive to buy fonts, a full set of 12 pt type typically costing less than $100. Of course, there are many fonts in many sizes and once you catch the bug, you may find that there’s always a new font you think you need.

Here are some pages that I printed this morning using the text shown in the photos above:


I’m still learning the craft of letterpress but am confident that I can now make my modest modified etching press do what I need it to do. It’s been a lot of work but it’s starting to pay off!

And by the way, Eric Johnson recently created North Bay Letterpress Arts, a non-profit organization in Sebastopol to do with all things letterpress. Check them out!


The Artist’s Lair

My first long term project after the master class with Keith Carter turned out to be one of my favorites for a lot of reasons.

My intention with the project was to do something with portraiture, which I had never attempted before – best way to learn is to dive in!

Jason KelchJason Avery Kelch

My “muse” for the project was Arnold Newman, probably the greatest portrait photographer of the the 20th century. He had a particular fondness for photographing artists in their studios, and since my immediate world is populated with artists I thought I’d follow suit. Shoot what’s familiar…

My initial aims were modest, just do maybe 20 environmental portraits of artists I knew in their studios. Simple (usually) natural lighting, B&W, hopefully shots with some character. I was envisioning the work in a self-published book.

Jennifer BecJennifer Bec Hirshfield

I tried to set up one shoot a week and after about 15-20 of these I decided to keep going. I started getting suggestions from various people about who to shoot next. I wanted to cover different mediums, have a balance of men and women, young and old. I even visited the curator at the Sonoma County Art Museum to connect with some of the more celebrated artists in the county. I met a lot of interesting people and everyone welcomed me into their studio sanctuaries. I discovered what a wide range of places people can create in!

One of my favorite aspects of the project was showing up at the studio of an artist who I had never met or seen before and having to figure out in less than an hour how to get the shot I needed for the project. The element of surprise (and fear!) was stimulating. Working within constraints leads to creativity in my opinion. Some of my favorite shots came in studios that were modest compared to many, with people whom I had just met.

Finally, after more than a year of visiting artist studios, I had to draw a line in the sand – I literally could have gone on forever (there are a LOT of artists in Sonoma County!). I decided to stop at 50 photographs and turn my attention to publishing the book.

Bill WheelerBill Wheeler

After a lot of trial and error I ended up printing 250 copies of a small soft cover edition with a local printer. As I already knew, printing high quality black and white work with a small run on digital printers is extremely difficult. And since I am a professional printer myself, I’m very picky! Here is the final result:


I was also honored to be able to have a short pop-up show at the Santa Rosa Museum of art with all 50 portraits and a sampling of over 20 original art pieces by selected participants.


All in all, I learned a lot and had a great time – lots of work, but well worth it!

Back to the Beginning…

LoneTreeTransferimage transfer on stone paper

I thought I’d go back to the early stages of my interest in handmade printing. Since 1998 I had been printing exclusively with 100% digital output. As technology improved the prints became more and more refined and beautiful, but somehow I wasn’t satisfied. During a several year long period I actually gave up photography and became a painter – pastels, acrylics and mixed media. I enjoyed the tactile, hands-on quality of the work that I found missing with photography in the modern world.

For a variety of reasons I gave up painting and returned to being a photographer. But I never lost my love of working with my hands, making something unique, the textural possibilities of different mediums. So I began to seek that in photography. It was challenging as most photographic printing I knew about was very 2 dimensional and technology driven. How could I find a way to make the work uniquely mine?

I discovered a cool book called Digital Art Studio written by 3 women who were experimenting with combining digital printing with various traditional and mixed media techniques to create handmade one-of-a-kind prints. I became  very interested in image transfers and began to output some of my classical landscape shots in that way.

laguna-trasnfer-2image transfer on stone paper

The process involves printing your digital file on a special (transparent) transfer sheet on a pigment inkjet printer. The sheet has a special coating that, when mixed with some special chemistry, allows the ink to lift off and transfer almost completely to another surface. After coating the printed image (or the receptor paper) with the chemistry, I place the sheet with the image face down on the receptor, wait several minutes, and peel the transfer sheet away.

This is where the “magic” happens. Each transfer is different and usually has artifacts or flaws – which is what you want and what gives the unique character to the piece. The last thing you want is a perfect transfer! Not every transfer works – there is a high failure rate, especially while learning the process.

For this type of subject matter I liked using something called Stone Paper as the receptor for the image. It actually is not paper at all but a composite of limestone and resin. It’s quite heavy and completely non-absorbent. So the pigment ink sits completely on the surface resulting in very rich pure color and blacks. It also takes a long time to dry!

You can find out all about this process and the materials needed in the book Digital Alchemy.

This was my starting point to a much wider world of experimental and alternative process photography. I was hooked!

Next time I’ll talk about the next stage in my evolution down this path.


Heart of Dark(room)ness


Today I’m making negatives in preparation for spending the day in my darkroom tomorrow printing a set of negatives to make a new copy of my “By Hand” book. So I thought I’d share some of the steps involved in making palladium prints.

First up is making the negative. Palladium printing, like all 19th century processes, is a contact printing method. The negative is placed directly on the light sensitive paper so the final print is the size of the negative. Many people these days are making digital negatives, rather than using film negatives from their cameras. This allows all of the work needed to make a great print to be done up front when preparing the digital file for printing on my Epson printer. This means that when actually exposing the negative and paper I don’t have to rely on crude dodging and burning techniques that we used to use.  Of course, there is a lot that goes into making a really good digital negative that I may go into in another post. So today I’m printing out a new set of negs for printing tomorrow.




Once in my darkroom I first measure out the chemistry I’ll need to sensitize the paper. These processes rely on hand coating various art papers with light sensitive chemistry. You can’t buy ready made paper to make palladium prints.

Next is coating the paper – I use a specific Richeson paint brush that works extremely well. Once dry (but not completely dry!) I place the neg on the paper and put them in my UV exposure unit. Palladium is exposed with UV light and I use a screenprinting unit that provides that as well as a convenient vacuum system which ensures the neg is evenly situated on the paper. Exposure times are pretty long, something like 5 minutes.

Finally the print is run through chemistry. One of the best things about palladium printing is that the image appears on the paper the instant you drop it in the developer – presto, the image jumps out at you! Then comes a series of clearing baths – all in all, the print is in chemistry for about 40 minutes so you need to use a paper that has good wet strength.

That’s it in a nutshell. Of course I’ve simplified it somewhat, especially the part about making negs.

I particularly like the fact that I’m combining 19th century technology (the palladium chemistry and process) with 21st century stuff (the digital negative creation). As I tell my friends, I’m not sure the 20th century contributed much of importance to the history of photography! (… just kidding).

Phoenix Arising from the Ashes



Anyone still out there? It’s been (an embarrassing) 4 1/2 years since my last post! Many things have changed for me on the artistic front, all good, all part of my evolution as an artist.

It began several years ago when I took a master workshop from Keith Carter, a wonderful photographer and educator who instilled in me a newfound enthusiasm for learning the history of photography and focusing on long term projects.

That led to an interest in 19th century photographic printing processes. Being a professional master printer, albeit in the digital realm, I quickly got hooked on this new/old way of making prints and I was blown away by the quality of the palladium prints I was making. I was also playing with image transfers, another “handmade” process that creates unique prints.

My next foray was into the world of handset letterpress. There’s a wonderful local letterpress organization, North Bay Letterpress Arts, that offers workshops on how to practice this venerable art form. Soon I was combining letterpress text with my palladium and image transfer prints.

Next up was moving away from simple framed prints on the wall into the exciting world of handmade books. I found this the perfect vehicle for my handmade 19th century process prints and handset letterpress. I’ve taken some workshops at another wonderful local resource, the SF Center for the Book, and have found a couple of nice binding structures that work well with my prints.

I found myself needing a new workspace to house all of this new activity and its attendant equipment so last year was able to build a new 400 sq ft art studio on our property.


If you look closely you can see my darkroom (yes, people still use them!), my UV exposure unit, my etching press converted to do letterpress, PVA glue, flatfiles, etc, etc, etc. Lots of handmade furniture in the studio as well.

By now you might have guessed that a big theme in my work these days is “handmade”. I’m really enjoying practicing the craft of artmaking, making each completed piece a direct expression of my own thoughts and my own hands. The image at the top is the title page of one of my books celebrating the architecture of the objects of letterpress. The title “By Hand” is at the heart not only of that project but of all my work these days.

This blog will continue as a means for me to share with you this adventure. I’ll share my thoughts about artmaking with this new perspective as well as share what I’ve learned on a technical level in the areas of 19th century printing processes, handset letterpress and bookmaking.

I look forward to hearing from you and am always happy to share what I discover along the way.

The Art of Illusion

transits 122, photograph

“I no longer worry whether a painting is about something or not. I am only concerned with the expectation, from a flat surface, of an illusion.”

William Scott

All art is illusion since it is a (mis)representation of reality in some way – unless you consider it as a physical object in it’s own right (a bit of paper or canvas, some pigment or emulsion). But the art always stands for something else and it can never be that thing entirely.

I like to bring that quality to the surface of my work so that when you look at it, it’s apparent that I’m not simply trying to replicate reality. I’m inviting you into the illusion, allowing you to add your own interpretation, to construct your own reality out of the sketchy elements I offer up.

It can be a little unsettling and it requires a bit more effort to create the story, and all good art comes with a story, either entirely personal or more communal. Sometimes the material I provide doesn’t inspire your imagination to engage, other times it sparks an unexpected journey.

Either outcome is fine, I just ask that you keep looking.

Creating the Story

transits 123, photograph

“We become who we are by virtue of the choices we make … about which parts belong to the story, and which parts can be left out.”

– Ted OrlandThe View from the Studio Door

Orland describes a bit about how consciousness happens – five times a second or so, we take a snapshot of the most plausible reality we can from what our senses offer us. We have to gather these discrete snippets from the blizzard of perception coming at us at all times or we’d be overwhelmed.

Each time one of these electronic impulses causes us to sample reality, we “paint the foreground, mute the background”, we “separate  the specific from the general”. We fit together the pieces we can and set aside the rest. We decide which parts belong to the story and which do not.

This process is duplicated when we take a photograph. We create the story by using various techniques to bring certain things to the forefront while simultaneously de-emphasizing others. We do this through composition and design, through selective focus, through dodging and burning, and myriad other strategies.

Making art is our way of recreating a personal world in much the same manner that we all create our everyday worlds. Here our choices are more conscious and controlled. It’s a way to dip into the ever rushing stream of reality and slow it down enough to enjoy and reflect upon it.

Critical Thinking

waiting, photograph

“We all have our limitations, but when we listen to our critics, we also have theirs.”

Robert Brault

It is important  to remember that critics have limitations, just as artists do.  They come with their own histories and prejudices, which they mostly cannot help but have color their critiques of our work. Often we do not know what these are, so it’s hard to interpret what we hear appropriately.

The same is true for artists and their art – each of us has our own background and experiences that inspire and define what we create. Most of our viewers know little of this and, thus, can only interpret our work based on what they see combined with their own insights. And in some sense, that’s fine – it doesn’t matter that they don’t know why we did something.

And that is true for how an artist uses a critique – while it may be interesting to know why the critic says what they do, ultimately it’s up to us to take the words in and see what truth they have for us.In that way, we become a little less constrained by their limitations and are left to do battle with out own.

Learning How to Focus

ancient urban 4, photograph

“Sharpness is a bourgeois concept.”

Henri Cartier-Bresson

I have a strong preference for photographic images that are partially out of focus. They seem to reside in that in-between, on the edge place that I find most interesting.

They remind me of the moment when you wake up from a dream and some elements of your consciousness are from the dream state while some are from your newly wakened state.

Finding just the right mix of abstract/literal, in focus/out of focus, distorted/straight is a challenge. I find that it’s a fine line one balances on. A little too far in either direction just feels off somehow. This actually adds an additional challenge for me as an artist, which provides a little extra creative juice to add to the mix.

Of course, this is all subject to personal taste. There are definitely folks who just have no interest in photography that isn’t tack sharp, infinite depth of field, etc.

For those of you in this camp, I refer you back to Henri Cartier-Bresson…

A Leap of Faith

ancient urban 3, photograph

“Its not that we need new ideas, but we need to stop having old ideas.”

Edwin Land

What is your relationship with your past? With work you’ve done before? With the work of others you’ve been inspired by?

For me it’s a most delicate balance. I can get too enamored of what has worked for me in the past and find myself unconsciously repeating it. Or I’ll find myself emulating work I see that I like from others. This can hold me back from exploring new ideas.

On the other hand, it’s important to understand what I like and don’t like, what has worked or not. So the past informs me, it provides important clues about what I should do next. The trick is to extract enough from it to be the seed of new thought and work, but not to retain so much that it constrains.

I try to use the past as a springboard, not a hitching post. And like the experience of having just sprung from the board,  the feeling of turning your back on ideas that have meant something to you in the past can be both exhilirating and terrifying.

A true leap of faith…