An Industry in the Sense of Art: the Movable-type Printing

Bronze Prize of the 5th Cyber-Island Photography Contest
Photographer: Tian-Xian Hong
Date and place photos were taken: 2009; Tai-Yuan Road in Taipei City 

Selecting lead characters.

Working table covered with all kinds of typecasting characters.

When a character is not available, cut portions of other characters to make the new word.

Arranging lead characters to complete the typography.

The shop owner is adjusting the printing machine.

Ready to print.

The movable type print is outdated in this digital era. Being a designer, I am well acquainted with the whole digital procedure from design layout to document output. However, an occasion arose when I had to print some simple text document by this old-fashioned movable type print. I was jittery when I took the computer-printed script to “Sun Star Typecasting Shop” in a small lane on Tai-Yuan Road. The owner there looked at the script and expertly pointed out the words that are not available due to size or font. He opened a book of sample characters; let me choose substitute words; he then picked out the right font from a sea of lead characters. When one rare character was not available, the owner cut portions of several words and combined them to form the missing character. Afterwards, he packed all the types and instructed me to walk across several streets to a print shop. He wrote down the address for me and explained that his shop only does the typecasting; the actual printing from lead types is done in the print shop, one of a few still operating in Taipei. I took the bag of lead types to the inconspicuous shop which looked like an ordinary family’s living room, but piled up on one side were loads of packed paper. After listing to what I needed, Mr. Huang, the shop owner, started to assemble the type characters on the working table based on my script. He added different sizes of lead rectangles to form spaces between words. The script was transferred into typography in no time at all. The assembled lead characters were tied with a thin cotton rope and taken to a room in the back of the house. Mr. Huang adjusted two black and shining printing machines in the room and printed a draft. He then repeated three times the process of adjusting printing pressure and position. Finally, he handed me a piece of paper where the ink was still shining and the imprint of lead characters could be traced slightly. I felt the human warmth of handmade material and the transition of historical emotions in my hands. I was touched by the old fashioned elegance which can’t be replaced by the digital process. I gave my thanks to the shop owner. He replied, “Very few people still use this method nowadays!” After that, he started to operate the printing machine again, and the room once more was filled with noise of the machine and odor of the ink.


To view Gold Prize of the 5th Cyber-Island Photography Contest, please go to The Funeral Orchestra.
To view Silver Prize of the 5th Cyber-Island Photography Contest, please go to The Monk.

Text and images are provided by Exhibition of Cyber Island, Taiwan