Kartemquin Korner is a semi-regular segment spotlighting the work of Kartemquin Films, the greatest documentary collective in this part of the spiral arm of the galaxy. This week’s installment:

Typeface (2009)


This film is a delight! Art geeks, Graphic Design geeks, Print geeks, Media studies geeks, Documentary geeks, and History geeks will all find a metaphorical chicken to bite the head off of with this film.

Typeface was directed Justine Nagan, who has been Executive Director of Kartemquin Films since 2008. Under her leadership (in conjunction with the Board Of Directors) the Kartemquin collective has grown into an even more powerful artistic and cultural force as a series of bold strategic initiatives were conceived and actualized.


A genius watches a legend film an artist making art. Justine Nagan looks on as Gordon Quinn shoots a subject from Typeface.

She also handles Executive Producer duties on Typeface (as she does on every Kartemquin Film), sharing them with Kartemquin co-founder Gordon Quinn and documentary doyen Maria Finitzo. Starr Marcello is Associate Producer, Tom Bailey was the Director Of Photography, Liz Kaar edited the film, and Zak Piper did the sound.



Typeface explores The Hamilton Museum of Wood Type in the small Wisconsin town of Two Rivers. The museum serves many functions; as an exhibition of of the history of printing, as a repository for 1.5 million pieces of wood type, and as a gathering point for the many artists who now use those pieces to create mostly abstract works of graphic art. The museum also holds several workshops throughout the year with the most cutting edge letterpress artists holding court and sharing their techniques and tips.



The museum was originally opened in a part of the old Hamilton Factory.

The Hamilton Company, founded in 1880, quickly became the largest manufacturer of wood type for offset printing in the US; dominating the industry for decades and operating up until the mid-1980’s (not coincidentally when the first Macintosh computers were made available). Wood-based letterpress printing was the engine that drove American culture in general and the advertising industry in particular throughout the late 19th and most of the 20th Century until being supplanted by computer graphic design and offset lithography printing techniques.


The film provides a brilliant illustration of a point media studies guru Marshall noted in his ground breaking studies in the mid 20th Century- namely that when one type of media is eclipsed by a newer media, the old media then turns into an art form.


We see that here as a slew of graphic designers and artists are shown availing themselves of the museum; but especially in the case of Dennis Ichiyama, a Letterpress Artist and Purdue University Professor who makes regular pilgrimages to Two Rivers (with as many of his students as he can) to create works of art which utilize selected pieces of type from the museum’s collection of over 1.5 million wood type blocks. The segments where he holds forth on the zeitgeist of his art and the joys of the Hamilton Museum (and Two Rivers) are among the film’s most rewarding.


Some young graphic design artists get very enthused about the museum’s immense collection.

The film contains many lovely segments of practitioners of letterpress art in action; students and faculty of Columbia College’s Center For Book And Paper Arts, members of the Post Family Artist Collective, as well as Ishiyama and his students- combined with footage of them discussing their process and waxing rhapsodic about letterpress printing.


There is something extremely sensuous about the process of letterpress printing. Large dollops of thick ink are mixed to the desired color then slathered onto rollers; then the page is inserted, a lever is pulled, and the machine prints the text with a satisfying “ku-chunk.” Then, its surface now glistening with still-wet ink, the page is gently removed.


The sight of a letterpress machine such as this one may arouse you a bit after viewing this film.

Nowhere is the illustration of where industry meets art form more poignant than in the scenes where old employees of the Hamilton factory interact with the artists who now use their old workplace as a creative playground, particularly the segments featuring Norb Brylski a retired Hamilton employee in his 80’s who regularly volunteered his time at the museum filling orders and teaching his craft to the younger generation (before ill health forced him to cut back).


Norb’s segments are delightful in several respects; the skill he uses in his craft, the respect that the “youngsters” have toward him, his good natured yet slightly quizzical attitude towards the abstract and often bizarre works created by the artists. “When I was working at Hamilton I never had time to play around with that stuff” he says while going through some of the prints given to him by Ichiyama. As confused as he seems (“Don’t ask me what they are!” he remarks wryly) one can tell he enjoys and respects what these artists are up to.



It briefly looks as if things might be dire for the museum, but the film ends on a positive note with a new director, Jim Moran, taking the reigns (the previous director Greg Corrigan’s herculean struggles are chronicled throughout Typeface) and the Museum’s 10 Anniversary gala being a tremendous success. UPDATE: the Museum’s just moved to a much larger space, so a great and exciting transition period is afoot.


The museum has moved into this new facility, which has more space and a great view of Lake Michigan.

Almost all Kartemquin Films projects these days seem to be about something serious or dire (for good reason of course) so it is a rare joy to just let a Kartemquin constructed narrative wash over you and give yourself up to the storytelling skills of the some of the greatest practitioners of the documentary form (and Josh Ritter provides a very nice soundtrack).