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As ‘The Itinerant Printer,’ Chris Fritton presses on

A three-color poster coming around the drum of a Vandercook SP15 at Union Press in Somerville, Mass.

A three-color poster coming around the drum of a Vandercook SP15 at Union Press in Somerville, Mass. Photo courtesy of Chris Fritton

By Sally Jarzab

PRINT IS NOT DEAD proclaims a poster in bold blue ink, serving as both mission statement and memento of Chris Fritton’s epic journey to prove just that.

In January 2015, Fritton (BA ’00) left his job as studio manager of the Western New York Books Arts Center in Buffalo and struck out to visit print shops, and make prints, across North America. Two and a half years later, with 47,401 miles across 45 states and four provinces behind him, and almost 16,000 prints to show for it, he came home. Now, the lover of all things letterpress has chronicled his adventures in a book called “The Itinerant Printer,” the title he took up for himself upon embarking on this professional and personal challenge.

“It’s actually based on a historical notion of ‘tramp’ printers who used to travel around picking up jobs in different cities,” explains Fritton. “All they needed was a card from the International Typographical Union, and they could work pretty much anywhere.” With the union long defunct, and letterpress printing now considered more of an artisanal pursuit, Fritton had to re-envision the model for modern times.

Along with a few commercial sponsorships, a crowdfunding campaign that raised more than $20,000 was enough to get him started. (Supporters received postcards—all originals, of course—from the road.) To keep going, he gave workshops and presentations, and sold his prints through pop-up shops and an Etsy page. Transport was by plane, rental car and train—once even by skateboard—and lodging varied. “Often I stayed with the printers themselves,” he says. “Other times I picked up a hotel or Airbnb. My accommodations could be lavish, or I could be on someone’s 30-year-old couch with their three dogs.”

Chris Fritton

Chris Fritton. Photo courtesy of Chris Fritton

Fritton visited a total of 137 shops, perusing their unique machinery, plates and type, which were often rare or antique pieces, and churning out posters and postcards. His works feature creative composites of text and imagery, sometimes aimed at capturing the spirit of the shop or region. Many are quirky; some a little irreverent. He also created what he calls “inkwipes”: layered washes of streaky color that work as abstract art. “They’re one-of-a-kind, made by running sheets of paper through the rollers instead of using the press as it was intended to be used,” Fritton says. “I’m very interested in what these machines can do besides print, and I think that’s where the future of letterpress lies.”

With his travels behind him, Fritton has occasion for reflection while he decides his next move. The coffee-table book “The Itinerant Printer,” available through his website, includes more than 1,000 images of the places, people and prints from his trek. He describes it as part travel diary, part cultural anthropology, part philosophical musing and part poetic digression—a fitting mix for the UB philosophy grad who also studied in the poetics and art history programs—and it captures both the impressions he made and the lasting impressions made on him.

“I don’t know what I expected at the beginning, but as the trip went on, it became a far richer experience than I could have ever imagined,” he says. “A friend said to me before I left, ‘If you do this and you don’t come back changed, you’ve done something wrong.’ He was right about that.”