At each stop on his Itinerant Printer tour, Fritton creates one-of-a-kind prints using the shop’s specific collection of wood type, metal type, cuts, ornaments and polymer plates. Cataloging his journey, Fritton intends to compile his prints, photographs and visits into a coffee table book celebrating the analog revival of letterpress.
Dating back to the first printing apprentices, itinerant printers travelled across regions to study under master printers, picking up new techniques and knowledge en route. These journeymen would eventually make it to a new region and set up a printing shop of their own. As demand for printing grew, these journeymen joined unions and had very little issues finding work. Later called “tramp printers,” they became known for the freedom and luxury they experienced as a result of a migrant lifestyle. Calling himself the “Modern Tramp Printer,” Chris Fritton’s interest in printing history inspired him to revive the sense of adventure and curiosity that tramp printers enjoyed.
“Letterpress is a visceral exercise,” explains Chris Fritton. “It’s not really something that you can learn how to do well from a book. You need to feel the objects in your hands, and watch other people’s hands while they work. It’s a craft and an art, something that you almost instantly realize takes a tremendous amount of dedication and experience.” It’s with this dedication and a few mentorship experiences that Fritton, with no formal letterpress training, has turned a childhood curiosity and passion into a full-time project.
“It’s all about creativity within constraint.”
At each print shop, Fritton holds events to talk and provide a hands-on experience. “Even though I’m rushing from shop to shop, place to place, city to city, as cliché as it sounds, I’ve had to learn that things don’t always go as planned,” he shares. “Printing is inherently full of problems. Setting a forme is like solving a puzzle. Sometimes getting the exact results you want is like a riddle — it’s all about creativity within constraint. You have a finite number of objects with an infinite number of possibilities. That’s what moveable type is, that’s what language is, that’s what the alphabet is — endless opportunity that springs forth from a series of curves and lines.”
Humbled by his experience with the project, Chris explains, “Printing is a craft with centuries — even millennia — of history, and there’s no way for one person to know everything about it. I needed this journeyman time in my own career because, as much as I thought I knew, it paled in comparison to what’s out there to be learned. ‘Shut up and listen sometimes,’ that’s what it’s taught me.”
Written by Alyson Strike
Photographs, prints and captions by Chris Fritton
Headline image: 4-color polka dot print coming around the drum of a Vandercook SP 20 proofing press – Hartford Art School, CT.