A Work of Art About An Artist's Work

by James Adams

The Globe and Mail, 14 December 2011

Michael Torosian was talking about the great private presses of yesteryear, firms like Kelmscott, Ashendene, Berkshire and Doves, and how, when they really wanted to test themselves, to storm the perimeters of perfection, "they'd do the Bible."

"Well, y'know what? This is going to be my Bible, the Lumiere Press Bible," Torosian said recently in an interview in the airy, orderly garage at the back of his house in west Toronto. The converted garage is home to the aforementioned Lumiere Press, which Torosian, now 59, started 25 years ago to produce, in the tradition of Johannes Gutenberg, exquisitely crafted, limited-edition books on photography and photographers. Using a vintage letterpress, fine paper and lead type, Torosian to date has painstakingly birthed 21 works of art about works of art, books that have found their way into the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, London's Victoria & Albert Museum, the Musee d'Orsay in Paris and the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, among many others.

The Bible he was touting is his latest labour of attentive and intensive love, a slender 52-page volume, published in a case-bound edition of only 250 copies, titled Steichen: Eduard et Voulangis. Produced in association with Manhattan's prestigious Howard Greenberg Gallery, the book, priced at $650 a copy, focuses on a crucial but heretofore under-recognized period in the career of Edward Steichen (1879-1973), one of the most famous and influential photographers in the history of the idiom. It was in Voulangis, a leafy hamlet about 35 kilometres east of Paris, in the years 1915 through 1923, that Steichen broke with the tenets of photographic pictorialism to re-position himself as a modernist.

As Torosian writes in an essay in the book, Steichen at the start of the 20th century had described himself as "a painter, first, last and all the time," regarding his painting and photography as "symbiotic." But after witnessing the horrors of the First World War and meeting such cutting-edge creators as Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, he concluded the endeavours were, in fact, "antithetical," and that photography was the medium most suited to the age. One day, in a quixotically symbolic gesture, he hauled all his paintings into his garden in Voulangis and made a bonfire of them. Afterward, he proceeded to photograph a white cup and saucer, eventually producing no less than 1,000 negatives of this humble subject but never making a single print!

The great coup of Steichen: Eduard et Voulangis is that it includes, among the 16 meticulously reproduced images Torosian hand-tipped into each volume, two photographs never published before. They were among a cache of seven or eight photographs Steichen's widow, Joanna, handed to Greenberg in the autumn of 2008 and that Greenberg in turn included in a Steichen show at his gallery in the spring of 2009. Greenberg and Torosian have been friends and mutual admirers since the late 1980s: indeed, to mark Greenberg's own 25th anniversary as a gallerist in 2007, he got Lumiere to produce a 250-copy portfolio featuring 25 photos from Greenberg's private collection.

Preparing a book on Steichen has been a long-time ambition of both men, and Greenberg, in fact, has retained the first 50 copies of Steichen: Eduard et Voulangis for his own use. In an interview, Greenberg acknowledged that while it's "hard to imagine [Torosian] surpassing Steichen," perhaps their next project, as yet unannounced, might. "The beauty of our collaboration is that it allows Michael to realize ideas he couldn't while publishing on his own."

Recently Greenberg was visited by Cologne's Gerhard Steidl, "arguably the most important and capable publisher of photography books today, famously idiosyncratic." Greenberg handed Steidl a copy of Steichen: Eduard et Voulangis, which the German publisher leafed through quietly, betraying no emotion. Then he looked up. "A masterpiece," he told Greenberg. "I'd like to buy five!"

Back to Profiles