Friday, July 31

The Holga and Postcards

This is one of my favorite pictures, out of all those I've taken with the Holga. I was walking around Uptown with my camera and saw a clothing store display where one mannequin had fallen off her stool. It seemed uncommon and looked a little creepy, and the traits of the Holga captured that most satisfactorily.

The Holga was created in Hong Kong, in 1982, by T.M. Lee, and is simply a light plastic toy camera. The seams are imperfect so it allows some light-bleed in the film, and the whole thing (including lens) is made of plastic, so the focus is imperfect--but these qualities have endeared the Holga to artistic photographers. In particular, I use it because it tends to create antique-looking photos with black-and-white film; in color, they look like vacation snaps from the '60s.

The darkened area of the photo, ringing the image from the sides and corners, resembles a technique called vignetting (related to the English vine--imagine it winding around the periphery of an image). It referred to a decorative border surrounding a picture, intended to place the focus upon the subject matter in the center, but also applies to a simple darkening, saturation, or blur effect around the image.

What I did with this photo, and a few others, was e-mail them to and convert them into postcards. At the time only a few companies offered this service; now, a great many do and rates can be quite competitive, to the customer's advantage. The quality of these postcards was rather nice and I felt pardonably proud in sending them out to friends and pen pals around the world.

Thursday, July 30

Print Gocco: Wedding Shirts

There is also available a supplementary kit to go with the Print Gocco, and it is a hand-press that uses the Gocco stencils. It is exactly what you might design if you thought about turning an inked-up stencil into a highly mobile printing stamp. The cleverest thing about it are the curved arms you see on the sides. They were not intuitive when I unpackaged this thing but I assembled them faithfully and their use was immediately apparent: they let you rest the hand-press on the table without stamping where you don't want it.

The kit comes with special fabric ink, mind you, so you've got to be careful when using this stuff: it's designed not to wash out. I got the slightest of daubs on a new Calvin Klein shirt, which was instantly transformed into a smock/work shirt.

I printed up these shirts--my wife procured a large amount of black and royal blue T-shirts--for our wedding. They went in a package of gifts to our wedding party, and then were distributed to friends and family with liberal abandon. The image is of my wife and I hurling large dice at each other. Not only did this tie into the game-theme of our wedding/reception, but the faces of the dice contain the date of our marriage: 4/5, or the 5th of April.

Constructing the image for this shirt was a lot of fun. We have large dice-shaped candles so I got a couple close-up shots of them from certain angles. Next I set the camera on a tripod and posed as per my vision for the image, then directed my wife similarly. After that it was all Photoshop: I arranged the cropped images of us relatively near each other, enlarged the dice appropriately and turned them about until it looked much like we were holding them. Then I traced over the whole deal, trying to be mindful of "negative space" (a trick one picks up with linocuts) and printed this last out for my stencil.

I examined a few of my own shirts to find out where most images were positioned--I wouldn't want to start stamping blindly, only to have the first wearer bear us on their collarbones or stomach. It seems that most small images are positioned directly between the bottom seam of the armpits on a shirt, when lain flat. I set up a work table in the basement, cleared off some industrial shelving (each bar of which could allow a shirt to dry), and printed out shirts like a mad bastard. I discovered that much of my detail work from the stencil was lost, so if I print shirts again I certainly won't sweat any details. Gross images and big pictures are the order of that day.

What does this have to do with postal-related topics? Well, it's printing, so you could make a stencil of your own address and stamp it to a package in brown paper or covered in cloth, if you wanted to risk wrapping a package in cloth.

Wednesday, July 29

Designing Simple Stationery

With access to a printer, it's easy to make stationery that at least looks more interesting than a blank page. Searching around online for clip art and simple illustrations can produce little items to dress up a page and suggest an atmosphere appealing to the writer. A color printer adds that much more dimensionality to design and flair, but with imagination a black-and-white printer (like mine) is enough to design unusual stationery.

For myself, I found a classical illustration of a Hand of Glory. This was a device used by burglars to silently and invisibly break into homes. One would harvest a hand from a hanged corpse, steep it in paraffin, and use it as a candle in the home one was burglarizing: as long as it burned, the thief was beyond detection, according to superstition. While I don't advocate plundering corpses or breaking into homes, the romance of the times and the sense of mysticism were what appealed to me. Even if one doesn't know what a Hand of Glory is, it's still a supernatural-looking object. I'd place this in the corner of a page and write around it.

Below is an illustration I scanned from The Volume Library (I will always be grateful that book found me), a banner above one of the pages. I cleared out the text within it and filled it in with my own name and address, choosing an appropriate font (probably Copperplate). I simply placed this in the header and printed out one sheet like this--no need to have it on every page of the same letter. Again, it was nicer than nothing. The antique illustration of a candle and a book were up my alley in terms of symbolism as well as aesthetic appeal.

Tuesday, July 28

The Print Gocco

This is another holiday card I tried within the last couple of years. My wife surprised me with an amazing little contraption I'd never heard of--the Print Gocco. It is, essentially, a quick-and-dirty silkscreen press. It comes with a carbon black pen so you can make your own stencils, but really it just needs any really dark shade of black, such as comes out of my laser printer, in fact.

So I found a picture of a pine tree and wiped out the background. I traced over it in Photoshop, creating a layer of green branches, then went over it again and erased the bunches of snow on its boughs. On white paper, this would suggest the image of a lot of white snow on green branches, doing it in that order. Similarly with the hill: I colored in the sky behind it and let the negative space tell its own story.

This was another non-denominational holiday card I could send out to everyone. I was pleased with the result and it was well received in a small Gocco community of enthusiasts. Seeing what they produced, however, made me really want to push the limits of what I was doing and break into entirely new ground.

The disadvantage of the Gocco to linocuts, however, is in reusing a print image. Linocuts are simply scrubbed down and stored indefinitely, while a Print Gocco stencil is nearly impossible to clean and reuse, in my experience. The set comes with a tube of what's supposed to be a cleaner, I guess to help break down the ink, but the frame is a flimsy cardboard that absolutely must not get wet or it falls apart. The easiest thing to do is just make a large print job of whatever you want to print, and resign yourself to never doing that one again (unless you create a new stencil and everything). Also, I don't look forward to the day it's impossible to find any flash bulbs for the device anywhere in the world. Print Gocco supplies are not being produced any longer--we're just using up what's already been made. That's why I'm not as uninhibited in experimenting with the device as I would be if resources were unlimited.

Which is unfortunate, because the Gocco really is a lot of fun.

Monday, July 27

Onomatopoeia: Ghosts

On my Postcrossing account, I'm asking everyone a question: how do ghosts sound in your country? I'll tally the answers here and update this post as events warrant.
  1. America: "Boo!" or "whoo-oo-oo-oo..."
  2. Belarus: "Uuuu... Pshshsh..."
  3. Brazil: "Buh..." or "Buuu!"
  4. Estonia: "Tot-tot-tot-tot-tot...", "MEIE MEES", or "MÖÄHÖHÄOOO"
  5. Finland: "Böö!", "Pööö!", "buhuu..." or "HUHUU"
  6. Germany: "Huuu-huuuu!", "Buh!" or "Buh-huh!"
  7. Hungary: "Bú!" or "Hú!"
  8. Japan: "Hyu-dorodoro."
  9. Lithuania: "Būūū!"
  10. The Netherlands: "Boe!" or "WHOEHAHAHA"
  11. Portugal: "Uhhhh. Uhhhh..." or "Buuuu!"
  12. Russia: "Бууу-у-у!" or "Byaa!"
  13. Spain: "Buuuuuu!"
  14. Switzerland: "Boohoo" or "Woohoo."
  15. Taiwan: "woo-woo."
  16. Ukraine: "Booo..." or "uuuh..." or "qoooouuu..."
Interesting Asides
  • Estonia: "Like a fog horn or when Estonian band does sound check."
  • Finland: "Softly, like the wind."
  • France: "Same as American ghosts."
  • Great Britain: "UK ghosts are completely silent. More scary that way."
  • The Netherlands: "Bij ons maakt een geest geen geluid of anders BOE!"
  • Russia: "I think it's more about tone of voice than the exact words."
  • Switzerland: "It depends on the area, I think."
  • Thailand: "Thai people believe that dog can see ghost. So when you hear its howling at night, it means that a ghost is near you."
  • US, Florida: "All the ghosts are at the Haunted Mansion in Disney."

Sunday, July 26

Postcrossing, I Love You

I'm involved with an online pen pal program called Postcrossing. I've tried other free programs but they are largely unmonitored, so all you receive are a bunch of solicitations for scams originating in various west African nations, with maybe a Russian bride offer to mix things up. With Postcrossing, however, you actually get nice postcards from around the world.

These are a couple postcards I've recently received. The one on the left comes from Puerto Rico and the right, obviously, from North Carolina. The U.S. is a big contributor to the program, perhaps by dint of its tremendous population, but frequently I receive addresses to/from Finland and Germany as well.

I'm grateful for the program: I love the access to international postcards as well as the stamps they come with--usually I scan these in and add them to my online collection. I've historically had pretty bad luck with regular pen pals around the world, so this at least satiates my need to talk with new people. I try to send out interesting postcards when it's my turn to issue them. Perhaps the most difficult thing for anyone to do is think of interesting blurbs to write on the back. One guy in Croatia thought he would relate everything the average Croat knew about Minnesota, which was comically little. (It would have been even less if I wrote how much Minnesotans know about Croatia.) I responded with two postcards depicting a map of the state and a list of trivia.


Several things plague the junior-level editor or burgeoning English major: the ubiquitous "they're/their/there" error, the "your/you're" mix-up, and eventually the distinction between stationery (letter-writing supplies) and stationary (motionless; fixed position). That little E or A tells a completely different story, yet many people live their entire lives never learning how to sort that out.

Photo: Noisy Decent Graphics

But actually, both words share the same etymological roots. In a medieval world of traveling merchants, a stationer was a man who had a fixed shop and didn't roam about: he was stationed in place. Initially his was a general store with an unthematic array of supplies, mainly dictated by demand. If people needed mandolin picks, he might cache plectrums.

In a moment of history repeating itself: 'zines (unprofessional, self-published little magazines of specialized interest) might not be enjoying the boom they once did, but in their heyday they relied on for distribution the generosity of book/magazine sellers to allow a little space to move their wares. Barnes & Noble and Waldenbooks would never go for this, so 'zine producers relied on indie shops for shelf space, and a very helpful store could earn the title of "distro," or a reliable drop-off/commission point for distributing one's 'zines.

Similarly, stationers were often hit up by chapmen, peddlers of chapbooks. The Three Musketeers was originally a chapbook: each chapter was its own episode, printed and bound and marketed as a serial drama. People would get hooked on the story, which could end with a cliffhanger (just as today's soap operas and serial dramas do: why mess with success?), and have to wait until the next chapbook was released.

This symbiotic relationship between the chapman and the stationer dictated the course of the latter's marketing, and they began to stock up bottles of ink, quills and nibs, parchment, binding thread, and other self-publishing supplies. Some even went so far as to explore offering printing services for anyone with a bug up their ass to start a little newspaper or inflammatory political document. (The word libel, "false or malicious printed material," comes from the Latin libellus, or "little book," a term meant to devalue a publication of spurious value.)

And stationery was sold by the stationer who remained stationary... so why the deviant spelling? Perhaps someone implemented an A in the latter specifically to separate the two and it caught on. Written language has always changed much more dramatically than spoken language. And there's the question of "language" versus "currently popular dialect" but I won't get into that now.

Saturday, July 25

Linocut: Snowman for Holiday Cards

I'd come into possession of a very old book called The Volume Library, meant to be a compendium of all current knowledge--the cover is carved with scrolls that read Education, Commerce, Fine Arts, Dictionary, Atlas, &c.--as of 1927. I believe they released several issues of this Volume Library. There is a lot of information in here, much of it very interesting, only a little is slightly racist (as we were less enlightened 80 years ago), and a lot of it is freakin' random. Many things are left out and many others are baffling as to why they were included.

On the left is a linoleum carving I'd done based on an illustration (right) which appeared in the Volume Library, that of school children constructing a snowman based on a model I'd never seen before, that is, the scooped foundation rather than another rounded boulder of snow. The illustration accompanied some simple piano music that a parent or teacher might perform with children as a leisure activity. Nowadays I imagine similar children block the world out with a Nintendo DS rather than patiently learn and perform songs in tidy groups.

I used this linocut to print out a couple dozen cards at the end of 2006, as a kind of non-denominational holiday greetings to all of my family and friends. Some of us are hardcore, fundamentalist, conservative religious types, and others of us have somewhat strayed from that path to varying distances. Regardless, based on the premise that we all find something enjoyable about winter, I handcrafted an illustration to share with everyone and trusted that no one would be too offended. I've kept the linocut stamp block but haven't issued new cards yet or anything. I suppose I could, since I have a lot of new friends who haven't received the old run, and I could certainly dress up the cards to look fundamentally different from the structure of the old card, just with the same featured image on front. Plus, now that I'm married, I would have that much more family to send it to. Maybe I'll print a new release around November and hope to have them all done and mailed by the end of the year!

Friday, July 24

Creating Envelopes

These are some envelopes I made once. I picked up an envelope template kit at Lunalux, bought rolls and large sheets of patterned paper everywhere (Paper Source, CorAzoN, PaperGami), and cut out my own envelopes.

The templates were of a variety of styles, from long, slim envelopes you might use at formal parties to accordion-edged mailers that held quite a lot of inserts. One friend in particular, in Madison, WI, received the bulk of my creations. I never found a reliable way to seal them: glue stick tended not to bond well with certain weights of paper, and sometimes my envelopes would fall asunder in the middle of being processed. Sometimes the contents were returned to me, sometimes to the destination, but mostly they were simply lost/destroyed. I would recommend that people start using letterhead: even if your envelope is destroyed in processing, the Post Office can still return your letter to you.

I especially liked this pattern of paper because of how exotic it looked. I tried to efficiently cut one envelope next to another, so as to maximize the usage of this lovely paper, but sometimes I was tempted to place one of the large red designs in a key location on the envelope. I had suitable decorated tissue paper to line the inside, though that was redundant: the paper was impossible to read through as it was. Patterned paper like this also necessitated a nice clear mailing label on the front, of course, a small sacrifice of design for the sake of practicality.

First Entry

This blog is set up so I can brag or rant about stationery adventures.

When I was stationed in S.Korea, in the Army, I maintained 30 active pen pals all across the U.S. Later, I attracted a few (short-lived) international pen pals, about which I was very excited. Friends in Italy and Germany recommended Postcrossing, a system by which complete strangers can send each other postcards from around the world!

I love letters. I love writing them and everyone loves receiving them.

I also explored crafting my own stationery for a while: I got into linocutting and stamp-making; I created letterhead and patterned writing paper; I constructed my own envelopes and mailers. That was a lot of fun to do, but... not everyone is into writing letters, and few of mine garnered responses.

That was discouraging, and I put much less energy into it now.

But hopefully this blog will rejuvenate my own interest. I'll cover the postcards I exchange, show off my DIY stationery efforts, go into etymology and linguistics, and blather about anything relevant to this irresistible passion of mine.

And if I make a few new pen pals in the process, um so besser!