Along with vinyl records and vintage synthesizers, typewriters have made a nostalgia-fueled resurgence in the digital age. Take the Hemingwrite, a modern “distraction-free writing tool” promising screen addicts freedom from the internet, or German politicians’ ploy to use “unhackable” typewriters for security purposes, or fiction writer Paul Auster’s ode to his 1962 Olympia. Artists, too, might think about rescuing the typewriter from obsolescence after seeing the strange and beautiful pictures compiled in The Art of Typewriting, out this month from Thames & Hudson.
This exhaustive compendium compiles work from 200 artists who turned a common office machine into a tool for image-making, manually twisting and turning paper in the feed to strike characters in precisely chosen spots. It spans from the first known piece of typewriter art — an image of a butterfly composed of brackets, dashes, slashes, and an asterisk, made by Flora Stacey, a British secretary, in 1898 — to world maps, lifelike portraits, geometric abstractions, and visual poetry by the likes of Yoko Ono. It’s all culled from the Sackner Archive of Visual and Concrete Poetry, the world’s largest collection of its kind and one of Miami’s hidden art troves, founded by authors Marvin and Ruth Sackner.
Since we can now place type on pages and screens with no effort or mess, you might think you could easily reproduce the aesthetic of these manually-produced typewriter artworks in a program like Microsoft Word. It’s all just proto-ASCII art, right? But the appeal of these images often comes from their messy, analog nature.
“The images in this collection are clearly not made on a computer,” graphic designer John Maeda writes in the book’s preface. “What is it about them? It’s their imperfection; their mechanical imperfection, carefully mixed with human sensibilities and grit.”
Take, for example, the work of perhaps the best known and most intriguing typewriter artist, Paul Smith (1921–2007). His severe spastic cerebral palsy from birth prevented him from ever learning to reading or write, he required help with eating, dressing, and bathing, and had impaired speech. But at age 16, he discovered typing as a means of drawing. Though he couldn’t grasp a brush or pen, he could hit typewriter keys, holding his right hand down with his left so he could type with a single finger. With the shift key in lock, using a handful of symbols — @, #, $, %, ^, &, *, (, and ) — Smith went on to create nearly 400 typed artworks depicting animals, trains, still lifes, and war scenes, plus portraits of the Pope and Mother Teresa. Though he worked on a machine, his process was anything but mechanical. He came up with a shading technique, in which he’d press his thumb on the ribbon to apply ink to the drawings. He smeared ink with erasers and built up dark color blocks with repetitive keystrokes.
When typing in a digital word processor, an artist can’t, for instance, smear ink or reposition paper. The work in The Art of Typewriting is a testament to how technical constraints can force artists to be more resourceful about their creative processes. It would be tedious or perhaps even impossible to use a program like Photoshop or Word to reproduce some of the common techniques employed in artistic typewriting. Take the overstrike — while it’s a simple process on a typewriter, overstriking in Photoshop is cumbersome and requires adding new layers. So, in addition to being “unhackable” and internet-free, there are other advantages ye olde typewriter has over today’s sophisticated word processors and design programs. Luckily, eBay has plenty for sale.
The Art of Typewriting is available for pre-order from Thames & Hudson and will be published on October 26.