Publishing Timeline: 1. Early Years

by Joel Friedlander on October 23, 2009 · 4 comments

This is the first in a series describing my Publishing Timeline; the events, experiences and occupations that have somehow shaped my business life up until today.

In the beginning was the type—the big fat American Type Foundry (ATF) sample books that held down the bottom shelf in the living room.

That’s where my brother and I would find them and pull the big books, heavy from the coated letterpress paper they were printed on, out onto the rug where we’d spend hours looking at the ornate decorations and formal invitations set in metal type. They were provided, a little like templates are today, so that the average pressman out in Dubuque or New Rochelle could quickly find a layout for an invitation, a social, an evening lecture—along with the required ATF type—right there in his sample book.
My father, Royal Friedlander, had apprenticed as a compositor—when printing forms were made from metal objects—in the 1930s. I grew up around printing, and can remember my father sitting at the dinner table in our little kitchen, the creases of his hands still black at the bottom from black ink. He had big tubs of pumice-based soap in the bathroom, but no matter how hard he scrubbed, he said, he had “printer’s ink in his veins.”

Introduction to Offset Printing: Candlewood Press

In my junior year at university, I transferred from the State University of New York at Buffalo to Western Connecticut State College in Danbury, Connecticut, where my father was a partner in a little print shop on Liberty Street. There was a friendly Portuguese bar down the street, and we lived in a little railroad flat above the print shop. On weekends my father would go back to Mt. Vernon and the rest of the family while I stayed behind.

It seemed natural that I would help out in the print shop after school, and I was anxious to learn. My father was trying to bring his partner into the twentieth century, and had installed a darkroom and a little offset camera to make film and plates for the small offset press he’d squeezed in the storefront shop next to the old letterpress equipment.

I learned to make negatives on the camera, how to strip them onto flats and correct the little pinholes that would show up with a paintbrush. I learned how to work under a red light, and to keep the film wrapped up, and how to use the rather confusing darkroom door, a little tube you would climb into that had a slightly smaller tube inside. You rotated the inner door to keep the darkroom light-safe.

Even Students Are Editors, Writers and Designers

At school I volunteered to be a reporter. I wanted to be a writer, and thought it would be a good way to get some experience. I reviewed a photography show in a downtown art gallery. Many very small, very precise photographs in black and white of trees, nature scenes, carefully framed and hung. Although my journalism career didn’t last long, I became friends with the photographer Tom Millea.

Another fast friend from Danbury, Patrick Troccolo, was working as an apprentice to Paul Caponigro in a little studio in Bethel, Connecticut. He took me down to show me Paul’s photographs, his grand piano, the odd books of philosophy that he studied. The authors had strange names: Gurdjieff, Ouspensky. I began a lifelong interest in photography, and the philosophy would find a way into my life soon enough.

I soon switched to the school’s literary and art magazine, Conatus. My friends were writers, poets, sculptors, and the editor of the magazine. My girlfriend wrote poetry and posed for life drawing classes, and we published what we thought of as experimental writing in each issue.

The following year I became the editor, and had to take responsibility for getting the camera-ready artwork prepared, designed, printed. I bought my first printing job, designed my first “book.” It was a thrill when they came back from the printer, to create something that really existed in the world was heady stuff.

Lessons to Learn

I realized that I much preferred the company of my creative, counter-culture friends to hanging around the back of a printing press. Although the design and creation of the magazine were familiar to me from working in the print shop, I was strongly drawn to the creative part of it, not the reproduction part.

This movement—away from the press, toward the creative end of content production—was a theme and a tension that would occupy much of the middle part of my work life.

But then, in the midst of the turmoil of the nineteen-sixties, work was the farthest thing from our minds. There were concerts to go do, protests to attend, a world to re-make. One day, in the company of my friend Tom and carrying a well-stocked backpack, I walked out onto the Connecticut Turnpike and stuck out my thumb.

We were going to be swept up in the winds of change blowing across the country and join the community of young people seeking something different in life, somewhere, somehow. It wasn’t until the necessity of life turned me back to what I had learned in my youth that I would again intersect with the world of graphic arts.

Watch for the next installment in my Publishing Timeline.

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