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 Conférences graphiques

Pat Reagh, letterpress printer
«–OK, “passion” sounds good but you’ve also gotta be a little insane.»
Patrick Reagh Printers, Inc., Sebastopol, California (USA)



Patrick Reagh started an important letterpress printing company in Los Angeles in 1978. He now lives and works in Sebastopol, north of San Francisco, in what he calls his «printing farm». It’s a live museum where he operates Monotype typecasters and prints from lead and wood type along with photopolymer plates generated from digital files. He prints for designers, book collectors, and various connoisseurs of letterpress printing.

PBlanc: You cast your own types in lead for the requirements of your text compositions on this centennial Monotype material.

Pat Reagh: Yes, it all starts on these keyboards. They activate the perforation of rolls of papers similar to those of the player-pianos. Unlike computers there is no screen and you see nothing but a paper roll with holes in it. The holes are punched on a line with 31 possible punches that, when combined, create coordinates (A-0 x 1-15). The grids are adaptated to the fonts’ matrices –the hard brass matrices in which the letter and typographic signs are punched. Molten lead will then be injected into these matrices to produce the type. And every matrix has a different grid, based on the sizes and number of its signs. Somewhat like the Battleship or Bingo game. Composition requires focus and patience. You’ve got to keep one eye on the text copy, another on the calculating indicators, and, without looking, your fingers must fly accurately over the keyboard.

PB: Yes, Battleship game, but less funny I guess, and you must often sink your ships!

PR: I admit this exercice isn’t my favorite, I type very slowly, with only two fingers. Years ago I employed a professional Keyboard operator named Bill. He was incredible! He typed at an unbelievable speed, and he could even talk to you while his ten fingers ran on the keyboard and his eyes followed the copy. At the end of the day, he wouldn’t have committed any mistake. Or maybe one. Two as a maximum. Awesome!

PB: There too, was a whole Working Class that almost completly disapeared.

PR: Guys like Bill were very well-paid workers. But there was this difficult Union mentality also. Things were not easy. For instance, one day, I realised Bill’s keyboard clicking had stopped and I could see him reading a book. «Bill what’s going on?» «–It’s this piece that broke down» he said, «I can’t type anymore.» «–Well why don’t you fix it? There are spare ones over here.» He then tells me: «–No, no, Pat, I’m a Keyboard operator not a mechanic, that’s not my job.» Can you believe it? We were such a small company, only four or five. But Bill was Labor and I was Management! He had worked in large shops with strict union rules. Was it the same in France?

PB: Holala! I’ll tell you about our Book’s Union some other day… But let’s get back to your One Man Studio. After being perforated, the paper rolls are put on the typecasters, where a mechanical process will inject molten lead into the matrices and have type (letters) spit one by one. What’s wonderful is you own an incredible number of fonts! What a richness!

PR: It’s an accumulation. The matrices, the machines and everything else, I’ve acquired over my career. The machines are all in good working condition, it looks much like a museum. It’s over a quarter of a century since this technology was commonly used. That’s why I’ve been able to collect much of it so easily. I purchased a few machines, but many were given to me. In the late 1980s I got a call from a typesetting company that offered me their Monotype machines and related material. There was only one caveat –I had to move it out in one week! I’m talking about quite a few tons of machinery. Nevertheless, we moved it out and here it sits, happily making type in its final pastoral home.

PB: I once commissionned an old engraver in Paris who worked on the same kind of press as yours, he told me about his main problem: when a piece broke down. Until a certain year he could go at the retailer’s, who had the manual. But this house closed down. My engraver was able to extract photocopies of the manual from them, so he could have the pieces fabricated by a mechanic, then. But someday, even this mechanic retired…

PR: That’s so true: when a piece breaks down it’s a real problem now. Amazingly, to this day, there is still a Monotype service in London. They will still sell brand new matrices and spare parts if they exist. But for how long? What was once a large industrial corporation has dwindled to two people. Duncan Avery who runs the service has been with the company for almost seventy years! Fortunately there is a network of letterpress printers and typecasters around the world and the internet has been a great way for us to network. Like a fraternity, everyone knows each other. When there’s a need you pass the word. Sometimes you even get what you need. But how long can it last, and at what expense?

PB: As long as there will be people with passion for it.

PR: To carry on working with this kind of material? You mean nuts! OK, passion sounds good, but you’ve also gotta be a little insane.

PB: Are you kidding? It has nothing to see with insanity. It’s rather extreme precision to me. Not anyone could throw himself in this work only with passion. It’s a lifelong experience: how to act or react in a case or another, how to determine the process is good or it needs a fixing, how to proceed to this fixing, and so on.

PR: It’s true I benefit from everyday’s experiences, since my aprenticeship. Now, from the arrangement of the letters to the pressure on the paper, the penetration of the ink, colours, etc., people expect the best from letterpress printing. But who wants to engage on the way to perfection nowadays? Nuts maybe?

PB: All right, all right, but consider the result of these efforts is beautiful. The quality of the press printing has no equivalency. It’s a gratifying industry.

PR: Yes, beautiful product but messy process. Look around, everything you touch turns to ink, oil and grease. Worse of all, look at these splashes on the wall: it’s lead. When a spring or a screw needs a fixing, the machine becomes crazy, it starts spitting hot metal in all over the place. My body is covered with scars after such incidents. And lead can be dangerous, you know, if you eat it. Very toxic. Printers were always discouraged from eating lead!

PB: It reminds me of one my mother’s stories: she visited printers in post-war years, for a newspaper she worked with. It was when printers were forced to drink milk to counter the toxicity of the lead surrounding them. My mother says there was always a white bottle under their desks.

PR: Correct, milk is said to be effective against lead’s poisonous effects. But I never heard about any American printer being forced to drink milk.

PB: My mother adds there was also another colour of bottle under the desks, red: it was wine. And the white bottle was always full while the red one never was. (laughters)

PR: You can’t live in fear, so we convinced ourselves that lead was not toxic as long as we didn’t ingest it. Yes, lead is definitively bad for health. Maybe trying to make a living working with lead type is bad for your mental health. Thus the wine.

PB: Awlright! Then if not for the Art, for the Business maybe? It’s true that here in the States, there is a micro market for the beautifully printed book, what you call the Private Press. It’s very much different in France. Most letterpress printers consider themselves as Artists, it’s difficult to foresee a professionnal collaboration with them. Your notion of Commercial Artist is not quite admitted in France.

PR: I see perfectly well what you mean. It’s true I always considered myself as a commercial printer. My know-how puts me into a production chain where there’s a publisher, an artist, an author, an engraver, and so on. I’ve been fortunate to work with some great publishers, writers and artists who have allowed me to produce some beautiful books. But I now only take two sorts of commissions. First: beautiful projects providing me with aesthetic pleasure, second: the ones providing me with a lot of money. (laughters)

PB: I bet it comes less often…

PR: It does sometimes! Look at this huge book here. People tell me: «–Why is this book on your shelves?» A marketing woman from The Disney Corporation approached me in Los Angeles «–We want to do a Small, limited edition for a book about the Lion King movie, and we want to do it with you.» Okay, fine. I only print small editions. Limited editions in my world are usually 300 to 400 copies. But to her and Disney a Small edition would be 80,000! Such a quantity printed in offset would no big thing, but they wanted to print the lyrics to one of the songs on this paper handmade by tribe mexican Indians in Puebla. They produce the paper in small quantities, so it required the organization of many tribes to be able to create enough paper in such a small amount of time. For me, printing the paper introduced a number of problems. It is called Bark Paper and is actually not paper, but pounded out bark. No two leaves are the same. We spent hours segregating the sheets by thickness in order to feed it through the press. We eventually finished it and Disney was happy and paid us quite handsomely. The timing was great because it was right before I moved to Northern California and it was a very expensive move.

PB: And allowed you to carry on printing these wonderful editions, like these poetry books on the same shelf, these miniature books, posters and so on…

PR: Yeah, but that kind of production is almost extinct. There just aren’t many young people that are willing to spend the time necessary to learn the trade. I used to employ up to about ten employees, but now I could’t even offer a trainee a chance to practice. I sometimes wonder what will become of my machines. There’s not enough demand for the quality they provide. It’s that every process is so long here. Extremely long. You’ve seen it: typesetting alone takes days. So, it’s expensive. And few want to pay for that kind of quality anymore. Everybody’s setting text on computers now, in a wink.

PB: Caution: to say the Monotype casters provide craftmanship’s quality is sort of an heresy from an historical point of view. When the Monotype, Linotype and others, appeared,at the end of the XIXth century, the Profession protested quality was over, that it was an industrial area opening, only producing low standards, etc., etc.

PR: The scribes said that when Gutenberg developed moveable type in the fifteenth century!

PB: Right: we’re talking about Progress, aren’t we? I don’t think I’ll betray any secret telling that in your studio there’s also this computer, same as mine in Paris, an electronic tablet also, I see you scan your types specimens to work experimentations and graphic researches on the same softwares as the ones I use. Some of your jobs are printed from polymer plates, etc. I have a theory: tools don’t produce quality, only men do. But tools help them.

PR: Well, I do spend most of my time on the computer these days. I do the design and layout of books that are printed elsewhere. Everything I know about typefaces and typography has been transferred to the computer. That’s where the work is. But at the end of the day, when I work on the old, hot-metal machines and printing presses, I go home feeling that I have accomplished something more worthwhile. More tangible.

Pat Reagh : 96 Bloomfield Road, Sebastopol, CA 95472-5106 (USA)
tel.: 707 829 6805 - e-mail: patreagh@sonic.net