This interview originally ran on the blog one year ago this week. But it’s such a great conversation that we’re running it (with some minor edits) again! The Pressed exhibition is still on display at the museum and we hope you’ll come see it once we’ve reopened to the public.
The Museum’s exhibition Pressed: Images from the Jewish Daily Forward is the latest in a diverse lineup of shows displayed throughout our landmark building. How do these shows come to be? How do curators balance satisfying the Museum’s mission with a desire to push the envelope? I sat down with Museum at Eldridge Street exhibition curator Nancy Johnson, Forward archivist Chana Pollack, and Bowne & Co. print shop Art Director & Operations Manager Rob Wilson. They share their insights into how this show came together and what makes it so special.
Enjoy their conversation!
Describe what Museum visitors see in the Pressed exhibition.
Nancy: Pressed focuses on the Jewish Daily Forward, a newspaper founded in 1897 that continues to serve the American Jewish community with digital content. Exhibition visitors see a selection of vintage metal photographic plates that were used to print images in the paper in the pre-digital age — 1920s through the 1960s. These are accompanied by contemporary prints of these plates made on a 1958 proofing press at the Bowne & Co. print shop at the South Street Seaport Museum.
Chana: We’ve also printed oversize pages of some newspaper pages, showing those images as they originally appeared in the Forward — so you also get to ‘read’ the paper in the context in which those photos first appeared. The show offers visitors a behind-the-scenes glimpse at newspaper-making, specifically the historic photo printmaking process. Typically, photographic images had to be transferred onto metal printing plates in a photo engraving process, in order to then be printed as those half-tone prints in the old black and white newspapers of yore. The Forward Archive has preserved our photo print plates and that’s what’s on show here, along with those 30 half-tone prints newly created for the show.
How did the Museum connect with the Forward for this exhibition?
N: A colleague on staff here had suggested partnering with the Forward on an exhibition about the newspaper. A member of the Museum’s Advisory Board, Sam Norich, was the publisher at the Forward until 2016. So I spoke with him about the idea and he connected me with Chana. She loved the idea of collaborating and had already been thinking about focusing an exhibition on the metal plates that are at the heart of Pressed.
How unusual is it for metal plates like the ones in the show to survive in a newspaper’s archives?
C: Anecdotal evidence suggests that due to the expense and space that the plates took up, they were typically melted down again so that their component parts could be up-cycled. Or they were similarly destroyed, abandoned, discarded.
Wow, so we’re lucky to have them and this exhibition. What other treasures are held in the Forward’s historic archives?
C: Awww, thanks for saying ‘treasures!’ The bulk of our collection is divided between those metal printing plates and actual gelatin silver (black and white) photographs on a variety of topics, along with some unique ones including original cartoons by the newspapers last artist, Paul Markison; diverse correspondence records from management, various writers and other employees; beautiful handwritten Yiddish meeting notes in oversized tomes; and one of my favorite items — Editor Simon Weber’s small collection of English language maps — you can just imagine the editorial meetings tracking international news events on them! They seem so anachronistic nowadays with GPS mapping technologies available on your phone and all — and yet these really send me. It’s the little things.
This show is so different from previous ones at the Museum and requires a completely different design than, say, the exhibition about the Jewish community in Harbin, China. How do you remain flexible enough to welcome new mediums and themes into shows? And do you keep an open mind about formatting and design so you can make the most of each show?
N: That challenge is part of the fun, and our graphic designer, Johanna Goldfeld, is very talented at making the most of a very limited space for a variety of themes and objects to be shown in exciting ways. For this show, she had the great idea to take scans we had of pages of the Forward and use them to create oversize vinyl images. They create the thematic context and the literal background for the show.
How did the show come together to include the printing of new images at Bowne & Co.?
N: That was Chana’s inspired idea. We agreed that having the plates, contemporary prints of them, and pages from the paper that showed the images originally would make for an interesting exhibition. She approached Rob Wilson, the master printer at Bowne & Co., and Rob was keen to see and then print the vintage photo plates. Rob donated his time to do this and we are extremely grateful to him!
C: Like a lot of things in this city, it started with a lunchtime stroll. I spotted Bowne & Co.’s historic shop one day, literally fell in and haven’t looked back since! In the late 1990s, by the time I started working at the Forward, they were already setting the paper via computers, though layout was still done manually in part—there were exacto knives and hot glue guns and cutting mats—but there wasn’t typesetting with metal print and plates anymore. I’ve always had a desire to be close to that aspect of our newspaper making history and have read about it in memoirs by a few of our former linotypists, especially Mr. Louis Katz whom I did get to know and who was very generous with his memories.
When I started poking around, asking Rob about printing those metal plates—something I’d been dreaming about for years—he didn’t miss a beat, and kindly offered to come visit our archive and assess the plates. Then Nancy gave it a big YES. In Yiddish we’d say maybe it was ‘bashert‘ — you know, a bit of destiny, fate. All it took was a walk at the edges of the city, where once it all began, and is still so redolent of memory and history.
Rob, tell us about Bowne & Co.
Rob: Bowne & Co., are the 19th century printers at the South Street Seaport Museum. We operate three spaces, a working printing office, a gallery, and a 19th-century inspired stationery storefront. The collection consists of 34 presses (1839 – 1960), 2400 cases (drawers) of type (used to print letters), and about 1,000 images. We use our collection everyday to produce social stationery (invitations, writing paper, business cards, envelopes, menus…) mostly for local neighborhood constituents. As Art Director and Operations manager at Bowne & Co., my responsibilities run the gamut from custom clients design and production, to equipment maintenance, as well as education, research and collections management.
What was it like for you to work with these historic plates from the Forward?
R: It was an exciting project, but not without a set of unique challenges. The plates are all unmounted, or removed from their wooden bases. So w had to use a system called “buntner bases” to temporarily re-mount these plates so that they could be reprinted. It’s not something that we do everyday, so it’s nice to get to explore those specific tools from our collection. Also, working with plates from such a special collection, there is always a question of how much stress we can put the objects under before they’re in danger of being damaged. Printing pressures can be upwards of 600 pounds per square inch, so our goal was to make as few impressions as we could.
In your opinion, what is it about this show and its disparate parts that comes together to tell a cohesive and relevant story?
N: When we started doing temporary exhibitions three and a half years ago, it was with the stipulation that the theme of each show should have resonance at Eldridge Street, that it should relate in a significant way to our core themes: the history of the Eldridge Street Synagogue and its Lower East Side community, immigration history, and architecture and historic preservation. Pressed easily fit these criteria: this was the paper read by the Museum’s early congregants, the paper that had a laser focus on the Jewish community on the Lower East Side, and that reflected the concerns of that community.
C: The fact of a secular, socialist, independent, fearless, Yiddish newspaper hanging out in a synagogue that’s been preserved with such tenderness is tempting to call an odd couple! When Nancy first gave me a tour of the museum and pointed out the divots in the floor by the pews, where the presence of folks hard at prayer is so clearly imprinted, I was so moved to imagine those same folks reading our paper. Moving through the magnificent space that is Eldridge, you can practically hear folks back in time having a good ‘shmues‘ with their neighbor in the pew about something they’d just read in the Forverts. And you can really feel the connections not only to Jewish historic sacred practices but also to just how sacred the practice of reading and engaging with what’s being offered by publications like the Forward still is.
R: And I was happy to bring some technical context to the show. We can trace technological advancement from looking at plates like these. For example, images from the 1950s look crisper than those from the 1920s because the process of etching halftones had become more sophisticated. But the same 1920s plates might be in much better condition than the 1950s plates because earlier in the century, copper was the preferred etching metal, rather than zinc of magnesium. And copper plates age better, because copper oxidation is less violent than zinc or magnesium. This is the great thing about working with a collection that spans a large amount of time, you start to uncover trends, which help to demystify some of the decision making of the past, and solve some of those mysteries. And it helps the owner of the archives, in this case the Forward, understand more about their artifacts and their past.
Thanks to Chana, Nancy and Rob for sharing their time and enthusiasm with me! Check out a short video we produced about the exhibition – including fabulous footage of the day we spent at Bowne & Co. printing with the Forward‘s historic plates.