Artichoke Press

Etched Block from Seventh Day AdventistsAndrew Cahan, purveyor of truly fine and rare photographic books, suggested during a conversation about Walery’s Nus, Cent photographies originales de Laryew some months back that I should get to know Jonathan Clark, who owns the fine printing firm, Artichoke Press, one town over from me in Mountain View.

Various layouts of pages to be printedWe finally got together last week and I spent a couple hours talking to him about his history and business. I may have mentioned this before, I’m a bit of a typography buff. As a child, I had a small hand printing press made by Kelsey, and three drawers of fonts. When I first walked in to his small shop I was struck by the drawers of type and the layouts of type into frames for pages of books. I have to admit I found the entire environment delightful.

“I used to have a girl setting type,” was a remark made during a description of the year it would take to traditionally set by hand the type to do a single book. Letterpress printing is the general term for this approach that today is restricted primarily to the produced of finely made limited edition works. Jonathan has not only done the printing of a book, but has also done the binding. His commercial work is done in a larger space in Sunnyvale using polymer plates similar to what I have been playing with for polymer gravure.

EngravingHis primary press in his small shop is the Vandercook Universal III, with a 19 x 25 inch bed. He gave me a brief demonstration of the press in action. Electric motor driven, the proofing press can be used for small production runs for a small release. Jonathan brought out some engraved plates he has been finding that he occasionally uses for illustration purposes. One wood engraving showing a race horse done by the (then) California artist Emanuel Wyttenbach in the late 1800’s. Jonathan also mentioned that just down the street, the Seventh-day Adventists had their printing plant, Pacific Press, until the 1980’s in the Mountain View location. A huge sprawling site near the railroad, Jonathan said it was the largest printer west of Chicago. Jonathan recalled the piles of fonts for many languages, the engravings for illustrating their pamphlets and texts. Rising cost of operations forced them to move to Idaho eventually.

Page LayoutJonathan mentioned he had met Jon Goodman in a workshop at Graphicstudio at the University of South Florida. He met Deli Sacilotto there, a noted photogravurist (who liked to print things in increasingly large sizes), was co-author with Donald Saff of Printmaking: History and Process.

We ended the day looking at books. First, Jonathan’s copy of Ansel Adams’ My Camera in the National Parks. Published in 1950, the fine halftone plates were made using a process similar to photogravure and printed on a glossy stock, giving the images the look of a photographic print. Jonathan contacted Adams in the ’70’s and ended up at Photo Engraving Service, on Natoma Street in San Francisco. Walter Mann, then retired, sent him there to get halftone copper plates made in the same process as used for Adams’ book for the first work done by Artichoke Press, The Photograph as Symbol, by Wynn Bullock. It is a handsome book that is a joy to hold. Jonathan believes these were the last plates made in such a manner as the engraving house went out of business. As part of an oral history program of the University of California, Ruth Teiser interviewed Walter Mann in 1974 on photoengraving from 1910 – 1969.

Vandercook Universal IIIJonathan brought out another book he published called Cut Paper, showing the work of the late artist and photographer Frederick Sommer. The uniquely designed book is actually two in one. It folds out showing examples of Sommer’s abstract photography which were documents of his cut paper art. Flipping the book over you see the second book with photographs by Jonathan Frederick of Sommer producing a cut paper work. This may be the only document of his cut paper process.

Finally, Jonathan brought out his photogravure work in progress of his own photographs entitled Prospects of Florence. We had been talking for a couple hours by this point. The large folded sheets had a poem on front in letterpress, and inside a tipped in photogravure. The photogravures were magnificent in their detail. At first I thought the gravures were varnished. But Jonathan said they were printed on Japanese tissue, the same thin, tough translucent paper used to repair books. Jonathan made the copper plates himself, and uses a commercial gravure press to print them. He uses a rotogravure ink, which is much looser in consistency than the stiffer etching ink, which is necessary because the plates are blade wiped in a production gravure press. The tissue is mounted temporarily during printing, and is printed dry. The image is then tipped in to a thick paper handmade 20 years ago by Bob Serpa, who ran the Imago Handmade Paper Mill in Oakland, California.

We plan to get together again – there is much more to talk about.


  1. Posted Saturday, May 1, 2010 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    Good to read this one. Where are you located? I saw a BBC TV film on an Artichoke Press printing maps. Same?

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