You Can Judge a Book By Its Typeface

By Peter Goddard

Toronto Star, 22 January 2005

When handed a Michael Torosian-made book, your first reaction might not be to read it, but to feel it.

You want to draw the tips of your fingers across the weave of the paper, to almost feel the flow of the letters of the handset type. Cool colour combinations and unobtrusive design combine with the smell of glue and cardboard in this entirely sensual process that's about touching yet is almost as intangible as incense in the air.

"I go to great lengths to select the materials," Torosian says firmly. "The feel of a book is 80 per cent about material."

A good scramble for answers is often the second reaction when dealing with any of the limited-edition photographic books from Lumiere Press, Torosian's one-man fine art photographic book-publishing business, run out of a cozy shed behind his modest Parkdale house. The small operation commands a worldwide reputation among major museums and art galleries.

If these beauties are just books, goes the question, what does one call all those other things taking up space on his shelves?

"Michael is a glorious anachronism," says Howard Greenberg, Torosian's New York dealer. "But he has the loyal subscriber list. He doesn't have to worry about ever selling anything."

Next Friday, the Howard Greenberg Gallery will release its own allotment of Lumiere's Dave Heath: Korea. Photographs 1953-1954. The portfolio of 26 black-and-white images by Heath, a 73-year-old former Ryerson photography professor, has been available for some months now in Toronto at the Stephen Bulger Gallery.

Lumiere, in conjunction with the Bulger Gallery, produced 236 copies of Dave Heath: Korea. But 36 copies come in a special variant edition, each designated by Roman numerals, each including a gelatin silver print, Howard Crawford Jr., printed by Torosian, signed by Heath.

Selling for $850 ($600 U.S.) a copy — the other 200 "regular" edition copies go for $375 ($250 U.S.) — the entire variant edition copy sold out immediate to special collectors. Bulger recently came across one selling for $1,500 (U.S.) on the Internet. "The price doubled pretty quickly," the dealer says.

Lumiere prices never decline. A boxed set of the first five titles of Lumiere's "Homage" series — with photographers Edward Weston, Michael Lambeth, Aaron Siskind, Paul Strand and Heath — are up for sale on the Internet for $2,000 (U.S.). On one site Lumiere is described as "probably the finest publisher of limited-edition photography books in North America."

"Michael does something no one else is doing now," says Greenberg, who well understands that the big news in photography these days features the un-Lumiere qualities of being big and newsy.

Torosian is in the vanguard of "the side of the medium that chugs along quietly," Greenberg says. "Lumiere is a small press in the hands of one enormous creative person who has a strong sense of what he wants to produce."

By specializing exclusively in photographic books, Lumiere, in fact, represents a tradition-within-a-tradition of the photographic book publishing that goes back at least to the 1844 publication of Henry Fox Talbot's The Pencil of Nature, considered a publishing debut, where photographic images were used in conjunction with text.

Talbot, one of photography's pioneers, saw the photographic book primarily as an aid to painters who, having the "minutiae" of some scene available in photographic form, might avoid having to sketch them in the first place. The late Susan Sontag felt that a photograph used in a book "could also be described as a quotation, which makes a book of photographs like a book of quotations."

But to Dave Heath, the photographic book has always been "a strong point in the dissemination of photographic work. The book is much superior to a gallery show, where they're selling objects. Galleries are not selling spirit and soul and ideas, which are the essence of art. Art should be intimate."

Welcome to Michael Torosian's world — intimate, private, careful, intelligent, mostly peaceful and entirely of his own design. The son for a Fort Erie welder who built the family house by himself, Torosian quickly developed an enormous respect for self-sufficiency. In 1976, while preparing a portfolio of his own work — he's had a number of highly successful solo exhibitions, at the Sable-Castelli Gallery and elsewhere — he "steeped" himself in all the processes that went into book building.

"Once I saw it was possible for a civilian to do all of this on his own, I knew this was the path I wanted to take," he says. "At that point I was interested in self-preservation. But as soon as I got into this, I realized I had something to say as publisher."

At Lumiere, he's publisher and editor, fact checker, typesetter, bookbinder, designer and on occasion, his own star attraction. (Lumiere's Anatomy, published in 1993, is a suite of striking nudes taken by Torosian.) He does employ apprentices when necessary.

Otherwise, at 52, he's as self-sufficient as he can be, proud in the understanding that he does it all without government grants of any kind, or by taking on commercial work or — horrors — by being forced to do a commissioned book. He's also chief mechanic for his mostly vintage machines, including his 1948 version of an old Linotype machine.

Analytical by nature, Torosian is entirely aware of how "the meticulousness that's required by photography and the meticulousness that's required in type composition and binding," are, as he says, in line with "the similarities and the parallels between composing a photograph and designing a title page, between print-making in the dark room and printmaking on a press."

The more singular he can be, the happier he gets. Just check out the typeface on Dave Heath: Korea, if you will. "It's called Falcon," he says. "Not only does it have a beautiful calligraphic quality. But it's the rarest typeface in the 20th century. It's never been digitized. It was made in the last year of the design program at the Linotype Corporation."

Lumiere's publishing history mirrors the history of photography itself, with titles devoted to the likes of Frederick Sommer, Gordon Parks and Michel Lambeth a particular influence on Torosian. (Publisher Stan Bevington at Coach House Press has been a mentor as well.)

Upcoming will be a limited-edition book on André Kertész, the late Hungarian-born photographer, with a major retrospective opening at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 6. Typical of the entire Lumiere offering, the Kertész monograph will be an intimate look at his self-portraiture and the personification of his image.

"I love making a very exquisite, elegant book," Torosian says. "But the content, the art-historical credibility of the book, is tremendously important as well."

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