Tara McLeod: a short interview with the master letterpress printer

Currently on show, till Saturday 15 July, in the Special Collections gallery space at Tāmaki Pātaka Kōrero | Central City Library is the exhibition 'Tara McLeod: About type'. This exhibition shows a selection of beautiful hand-printed books, broadsheets, posters, and ephemera from Tara McLeod’s exceptional career as one of Australasia’s master letterpress printers.

Image: Tara McLeod. Hot acrobats perform cheese fog polka. Auckland: Pear Tree Press, 1994.

Image: A view of items in an exhibition case, including the 'N' page and the wood type letter 'N' from: 16 inch grotesque: a specimen alphabet of wood type. Auckland: Pear Tree Press, 1998.

Librarians Jane Wild and Zoë Colling co-curated the exhibition. Zoë sent Tara some questions, about his life in print, which he has kindly answered below.

Zoë Colling: You became an apprentice compositor in the 1960s, working with an Auckland printing company. Tell us about your time working there.

Tara McLeod: The suburban and small-town jobbing printers in New Zealand were generally governed by English post-war typographic standards which had slumped in the 1950s. Design was not a great consideration. Even the National School of Printing block courses only touched on established ‘rules’ of typography. A good grounding but not a lot to report from apprenticeship days. I had stirrings that there must be more satisfying work. Trade Union rules dictated direction in work demarcation and design came mainly from outside the printing trade. 

Image: A view of spacing material which goes between lines of type in Tara McLeod's studio,
January 2021.

ZC: How did you get to start working at Pelorus Press? What was it like working there?

TM: My period at Pelorus Press was post [Bob] Lowry, but he had set a benchmark for good style. Ross Denis took over the business and maintained good standards in both typography and machining which gave Pelorus a reputation for innovative style. I was elevated to another level of craftsmanship. Typographic design was taken seriously for even the smallest jobs. Somehow Pelorus never grasped that the decline in letterpress would be so complete and invested a lot of capital into Monotype hot metal composing machinery, which was never properly utilised, but it did set higher standards.

ZC: You worked as a commercial artist primarily working for advertising agencies – tell us a bit about that time in your life?

TM: Moving into what was then commercial art, I started with an ad agency on the lowest rung, assistant typographer. In the 1960s, reproduction proofs for paste-up into finished art were still proofed from metal type. One of my tasks was delivering copy and picking up reproduction proofs from trade type-setting firms. It was a gradual climb through the ranks, paste-up, air-brushing, hand lettering, black and white product illustration, though never creative status. 

Image: Lines of metal type for the poem 'Harpsichord notes caught in a storm' set in a forme.

ZC: What were the main reasons you chose to move to the world of letterpress printing?

TM: The 1980s were the decade of ‘letterpress into scrap’ so with an interest in letterpress and seeing much type and equipment going for scrap metal prices, it was too good an opportunity not to start collecting. A sign-writer friend who had an interest in graphics owned a nineteenth century cast-iron hand press (still working) which he wanted to sell, so another too-good-to-pass-up opportunity. I was well on the way to launching the Pear Tree Press. The 1832 press is still the focal point of my studio.

ZC: You have worked with other presses – Holloway Press (University of Auckland) and Otakou University Press – how has that experience been compared with Pear Tree Press?

TM: The Holloway Press at Auckland University of which I was the contract printer/designer for about twelve years and Otakau Press at Otago University with which I did several Printer in Residence terms both had the advantage of being able to source and acquire quality materials and paper and employ commercial bookbinders. The book texts were of a high standard, and it was also a privilege being brought into contact with well-respected writers and artists. 

Image: An exhibition case with books printed by Tara when he was at the
University of Auckland's Holloway Press.

ZC: Letterpress books, and particularly artists’ books, sometimes can sit in between the realms of art galleries and libraries. Can you comment on the term ‘artists’ book’?

TM: The ‘artist book’ is very difficult to define and leads to a labyrinth of opinions on boundaries. ‘I made it and I say it’s a book’ – heard at a discussion. I would put my ‘Rattus’ series in the artist book category, with a non-conventional book structure, though incorporating pages with printed text. Hard to say about a lot of the other work I’ve made. The 8 Poems series, a poetry collection with graphic images to highlight individual poems, does this qualify? 

Image: Showing the book 8 poems: New Zealand poets 2014. Auckland: Pear Tree Press, 2014.

Image: Tara McLeod single sheet works on display in the Tara McLeod: About type exhibition.

ZC: What inspired you to make the wonderfully dark Rattus rattus?

TM: Rattus started as a curiosity - a mummified rat in a box. Then the idea of having it enclosed, which could be an intrigue as to what would be revealed when opened, which became a book structure, suitably enclosed in a leather binding with a bone clasp. After it was completed, serendipitously, a cat was discovered, under a factory's foundations. So the next in the series began - Felis Catus. After a cat, what next? Mice are fairly easy to come by. Farm hay barns seem to produce a few. This volume was titled Mus Musculus. I liked the idea of trepidation when opening, what is going to be revealed at the end? Mouse, rat, and cat made a unique series, with the originals reproduced in a printed edition. And unique enough to be acquired for Auckland library’s collection. 

Image: Showing items from the  Tara McLeod work Rattus Rattus. Auckland: Pear Tree Press, 2018.

ZC: Another one of your books on display is 'The head, the heart & the hand: private press printing in the digital age.' The page on display in the exhibition includes this quote: “The challenge now for the private press printer is the creation of an object with the look and feel that says not produced on a computer… but instead, a creation of particular quality with the mark of the maker’s hand.” What ways do you ensure the maker’s hand is included in your books?

TM: The maker’s hand shows in the complete process, starting with pencil to paper, setting the type by hand, the many intricacies of the actual printing process through to, sometimes, the finished binding. Being able to create with a totally manual process using equipment that has stood the test of time, the satisfaction of working with a technology that one has complete control over, and which is simple enough that if any technical problems occur, they can be worked out. Poets and writers spend a lot of time crafting their words, so the typographer has a responsibility as an interpreter of the writers work to present the words in a sympathetic fashion, to encourage the reader to follow through the text. Quality printing deserves quality content and meaningful texts. 

Image: Showing the book The head, the heart & the hand: private press printing in the digital age. Auckland: Pear Tree Press, 2007.

ZC: Finally, please tell us about what you’re working on printing wise now.

TM: Lately, I have been working on the 3-dimensional graphic artworks which include printed, painted and constructed lettering. These are one off pieces designed for wall display.

Enjoy the Ngā Pātaka Kōrero - Auckland Libraries playlist about the ‘Tara McLeod: About type’ exhibition which includes the voices of one of the curators, Jane Wild, conservator, Ngaio Vince-Dewerse, and Tara himself.

Listen here: https://bit.ly/TaraMcLeodPlaylist

Watch this video showing Tara being interviewed at his home workshop in Orewa, in preparation for an earlier exhibition at Emma Jean Framing Gallery in Silverdale, Auckland, as part of Artweek, October 2019.

Thursday 30 March – Saturday 15 July 2023
Central City Library | Tāmaki Pātaka Kōrero
44-46 Lorne Street, Auckland Central
Special Collections gallery, level 2.

Author: Zoë Colling, Heritage Engagement librarian