Low-Tech Love:Michael Torosian's Passion for Obsolete Printing Equipment and Beautiful Books
By Kate Taylor
Applied Arts Quarterly, 1990
Michael Torosian keeps the object of his affection in a shed behind his west Toronto home. He leads a visitor around the side of the house, through a gate into the backyard, to a small building that he constructed himself. Unlocking its door, he reveals a large bulk covered with a bedspread, which is pulled off to expose his vintage typesetting machine an Intertype, manufactured 30 years ago in Brooklyn, New York.
Like the proud owner of an expensive new car, he is ready with the facts and figures: The machine (similar to a Linotype) weighs 3,000 pounds, has some 360 oiling points and heats the lead used to make type to 540 degrees Fahrenheit. New, the Intertype cost about $35,000. When Torosian bought it in 1986 he paid $1,200, because the technology is so outdated that many consider it worth only the price of scrap metal.
While most of the world eagerly embraces laser printing, and desktop publishing, Michael Torosian is enthralled with an older, low-tech lover: the handmade book. The 37 year old publishes two titles a year, usually single-handedly, under the imprint of Lumiere Press, in small runs of about 150 copies. His classic book designs, with their beautiful title pages and covers, feature carefully composed typography, which he sets himself and prints by hand on a 20-year old Vandercook Universal I flatbed press. He then manually folds, collates and sews the pages, gluing them into the handmade cover.
Torosian started his career as a fine art photographer, showing and selling his work in Canadian galleries. In the seventies, frustrated by the short-lived nature of exhibitions months of work for a few weeks of glory he started producing limited-edition portfolios of his work. His taste for publishing thus whetted, he set out to learn more. “I had thought to publish a book you had to have an enormous factory,” Torosian recalls. “From going around and visiting various people, I discovered that, if you use outdated technology, it was within one’s grasp to publish a book. The only question was learning all the different trades and crafts involved.”
With an extensive self-imposed reading program and a single night school course in bookbinding, he taught himself about printing, typography and binding. In 1981, he bought a press and started experimenting. Five years later, with visions of publishing that would later become Lumiere Press, he invested in the typesetting machine.
Before getting the Intertype, Torosian had set all type by hand, taking about four hours a page. Since then, the time has been reduced to about 1 1/2 hours, though titles and some letter combinations and typographic refinements still require manual setting. He has also collected a library of 18 fonts for the machine. His flatbed press, originally designed not to print books but pull proofs of type that would be printed later on a larger press, is hand operated. Once a sheet of paper is inserted, he cranks a handle forward and then back to print a double-page spread. During a busy spell last year, Torosian cranked the press 2,000 times a day, producing 1,000 spreads, and discovered after a week his right arm had grown an inch larger than his left. However, he usually works at a more reasonable pace and now has two part-time interns to help him.
During the two weeks or more it takes to print a book, Torosian works every day so as not to lose the feel of the press, listening carefully to the hiss of the ink on the rollers to determine when more is needed. From the pressroom in the basement of his house, the pages go to the attic bindery to be collated, sewn and bound. At top speed, Torosian can sew one book every five minutes. The process from edited manuscript through design to bound book of some 50 to 100 pages takes approximately three months. The finished product combines the precision of machine-produced work with handmade quality, this eschewing an arts-and-crafts look. “Thank goodness he’s a perfectionist,” says Toronto art dealer Av Isaacs, who has shown Torosian’s work at the Isaacs Gallery. “In both photography and books, he brings the same exactness to his work.” This approach has garnered Lumiere Press two certificates of excellence from the American Institute of Graphic Art.
The titles Torosian has published reflect his interest in photography. To date he has honoured four photographers who he particularly admires in his Homage series. Each volume in this ongoing project includes text written by or about the subject a biographical essay in the case of Edward Weston, famous for his shots of the American West; an autobiographical piece by Torosian’s teacher and mentor, the late Michel Lambeth; an interview with David Heath, known for his photography book A Dialogue With Solitude; and a monologue by abstract photographer Aaron Siskind. The book also contains a few reproductions of he photographer’s work and a previously unpublished photo portrait, tipped in by hand. Two other notable Lumiere Press releases are Nostalgia for an Unknown Land, featuring the colour photography of Rafael Goldchain, a Toronto-based photographer who shoots extensively in Mexico and Central America, and Toronto Suite, containing a series of Torosian’s own photo portraits of Canadian artists who have been shown at the Isaacs Gallery. The latter was launched in May 1989 with an exhibition of the photos at the gallery.
Torosian relies on such launchings, as well as his photography contacts and mailing lists, to sell each edition. Even though they are priced between $75 and $175 per book, most titles quickly sell out. His customers are principally photography lovers who appreciate the exquisite craftsmanship Torosian brings to his volumes. “I’m not a book collector, but this is something special,” explains Toronto lawyer Stephen Smart, who owns all seven of Torosian’s books. “It’s not glossy; it’s not a coffee-table book. It’s much more precious than that. It’s rare to find such care and overall thoughtfulness.”
Despite this kind of loyalty, Lumiere Press is not a big money-maker. Torosian supplements his income with sales of his photographic prints and freelance work as a writer and art curator. Still, the press does pay its own way, and Torosian calculates that he makes minimum wage for the long hours he puts in editing, typesetting and binding. His capital costs are low the $400 press, the $1,200 Intertype and some $3,000 to $4,000 worth of lead type. The irony of Lumiere Press is that, in an age where desktop technology has brought publishing within financial reach of smaller outfits, it relies on the low price of obsolete equipment to keep costs manageable.
“As far as I’m concerned, just the fact that I can make a book, sell the book and generate enough income to move me on to the next book is tremendously successful,” says Torosian. “Trade publishers can’t do that if they don’t have grants. It enables me to do idiosyncratic books that trade publishers wouldn’t feel would survive in the marketplace.” Pointing to his sold-out editions and their rising resale prices, he adds, “I have proven they have an audience.”
Torosian is content to break even, since his primary motivation is artistic rather than commercial. He is also willing to entertain the possibility that the book itself can become an art object. “In the case of some of my books in which I am the author, the photographer, the designer and the bookmaker, I find I get to the point where there’s a seamless integration of all these aspects. I think when you reach that point, you can honestly say you’ve made a work of art.”
With a job that satisfies his artistic impulses and allows him to decided whether he’ll be a photographer or publisher on any given day, and with a publishing program mapped out for the next few years, Torosian intends to remain faithful to his low-tech love: “Once you’ve been enraptured by the appearance of lead type on beautiful paper, it would be difficult to switch to something else.”