This is the third in a series all about art and artists in Portland.
When I first reached out to the Gann Brothers, they were quick to warn me that in their mind, what they do does not qualify as art. Owners of Gann Brothers Printing in the Pearl District, Portland, Oregon, Christopher and Michael Gann are members of a select few who still print “the old fashioned way.” Over the course of an almost two hour long tour and discussion about the business, I realized that their industry is exactly the kind of art that is being lost with each passing generation.
“Anybody can take a laptop and print and think that’s all there is to it. The image that you print translates exactly to the [digital] printer,” Michael Gann explains. “But when we go to print something on the printing press the colors don’t translate. The printers have the way of communicating the color and the computers have a way of communicating the color and there is no connection.”
The Gann Brothers have had a past filled with printing. Their grandfather worked at a print shop and their father grew up working at the shop from a very young age. When he came of age, Michael and Christopher’s dad opened up a printing shop in Portland near the PSU (Portland State University) library. The State of Oregon took over the land to expand the PSU campus so he bought a building in the Pearl. They have been in this same building for over 50 years. Some of the building is a print shop, some of the building is leased to tenants. They are one of three shops in the city that still prints using “hot metal” and the only printing shop left in the Pearl district. Christopher Gann was sure to note that when they started in this same building 50 years ago there were over 30 printing shops.
“We’ve seen the neighborhood grow up around us. The [other print stores] have either merged, closed, or moved out of the neighborhood,” Michael Gann continues. “We are the last one standing. People today think a place like Office Max or Kinkos [FedEx] is a printing company. If you walk into our shop, it’s night and day because people misconceive that what can be done on the computer that is printing. There is a difference.”
The reason behind this discrepancy of knowledge in the current youth generation comes from a fundamental lack of education. People think back to the day when you could make a living working as a construction worker but what they don’t realize is that today students are only told to seek jobs in professions and the drive to work in manual labor has been completely thrown by the wayside.
“There used to be technical schools. Portland Public Schools used to have a printing department. There is no vocational school [anymore]. Kids that are taught design on computers are never taught to think from the back end to see if something works,” Christopher Gann tells us.
Sure, the demand for an old fashioned printing press has gone down over the years. But there were a few reasons the Gann brothers presented to explain the fact that they are still standing. While all around them, businesses in their same industry are dropping like flies, Gann Brothers stands strong. One reason why presses go out of business is because they over extend themselves with expensive purchases on brand new technologies. Gann Brothers buys only used technology that is one hundredth the price that makes the same product in the end.
“Most places have one big customer,” Michael explains. “When that customer moves, they are out of luck. We are kind of old and slow and we can’t move. We’ve built relationships here in the neighborhood and [our clients] are like [family].”
Yet after 50 years in prime real estate on the corner street where hundreds of people walk past every day, few know Gann even exists.
“One of our running jokes between us,” Michael Says, pointing at Christopher “We say it’s like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The old guy says to Mr. Bucket ‘Nobody ever goes in, and nobody ever comes out, but they produce stuff every day.’ People walk by all the time and look in and they have no idea it’s a printing company.”
It took me an hour and a half to finally get one of them to say what they do is an art.
Micheal Gann’s attempt at marketing art made from the skins from dried paint.
Christopher Gann Gives me a tour of the shop.