A 21st Century Gutenberg

by Simon Houpt

Globe and Mail, May 17, 2008

When photography dealer Howard Greenberg celebrated his 25th anniversary in the business last year, he mounted an exhibition at his midtown Manhattan gallery that included an unusual installation. There, amid 25 seductive highlights from his collection – including an abstract pear by Steichen, a pointillist streetscape by Karl Struss, two pristine pieces of Americana by Walker Evans, and a print of Ruth Orkin's An American Girl in Italy – he'd constructed a shrine to a book.

But although the photos dated back as far as 1865, the book was new. Still, the installation made a strong case for the book's place of honour among the dealer's rare and expensive artifacts, with a video showing its creation, from typesetting to printing to binding, in an old- fashioned process that even Gutenberg might recognize.

The star of the 10-minute video was Michael Torosian. Since founding Lumiere Press in a garage at the foot of his yard in the west end of Toronto in 1986, Torosian has published 18 handmade books on photography. Printed on his vintage letterpress, they are themselves works of art, limited editions in which the editorial content, design and printing is executed with an aesthete's eye, an artisan's hand and a perfectionist's oversight.

Torosian's 19th book, An American Gallery, was produced by special order for the Greenberg anniversary and includes stunning high-tech reproductions of the 25 photographs from the exhibit accompanied by the dealer's commentaries.

Greenberg bought 200 copies as gifts for members of the city's photography elite. Torosian produced an additional 50 copies, which he priced at $1,000 (U.S.); today, only four are unsold. Why so expensive? The book took almost 12 months to produce, slowed down only slightly by the fact that the photos had to be printed separately and then placed by hand into each copy. “This isn't like making brooms or stools or something. It takes as long as it takes,” said Torosian, over brunch in New York shortly after the exhibit opened. “In every way, shape and form, this was the biggest, most ambitious project I've ever done.”

Torosian, 55, first became enchanted with letterpress printing in the late 1970s, when photographer Michel Lambeth introduced him to Glenn Goluska, a designer with Toronto's Coach House Press who had a press in his kitchen. “I'd thought you needed a giant factory to make a book,” explains Torosian. “I had no idea that some guy, with some machinery in his house, could make a book. It was an incredible revelation.”

Torosian is a photographer, and at the time he was becoming frustrated with his dependence on dealers to gain access to an audience. He realized he could bypass those gatekeepers by publishing his own work.

Lumiere editions include three volumes on Dave Heath and one each on Lewis Hine, Edward Burtynsky, Paul Strand, Gordon Parks and others. Torosian also has published three books of his own photography work.

The Greenberg project originated more than two years ago when Torosian visited the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where he marvelled at a ball gown made for First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. Later that day, he told Greenberg about the gown. “I said, ‘It's incredible to see an object with so much craftsmanship, so much time lavished on it. Almost you'd have to believe that time and money meant nothing; only the realization of the object was important.' I said, ‘That has got to be the dream project of anybody.' And he said, ‘Well, let's do a book that way.' ”

But Greenberg may not have been aware of the obsessiveness behind Torosian's reputation as a perfectionist: The title page of An American Gallery went through 53 different designs before Torosian was satisfied. The typesetting ate up half a year. He took months to figure out how to insert the photographs, which are a different thickness than a normal paper page, to ensure they didn't cause the book to spring open awkwardly.

All of which is why the finished book left Toronto only days before it was due at the Greenberg gallery.

Given all that upfront work, and the fact that Lumiere Press editions have always sold out, why doesn't Torosian produce more? Simple math would suggest that, despite the high prices, he's not making a killing. “You have to be focused: every day, every week, every month. You can't just sort of go through the motions, because it's very unforgiving,” he explains. “I guess it's like someone who makes violins or something: There might be a monetary incentive to turn out 100 violins a year, but if you can only really do 18 credibly, then you'd better stick to the 18.”

Torosian's understated arrogance is forgivable: In the hand, a Lumiere Press book instantly seems a unique animal.

“No matter how well a conventional mass-market trade book is produced, in their nature as a physical object, they all look the same: this sort of blockish object. They're interchangeable. But when someone picks up one of my books, it has the same pedigree as other books, and yet it's a different species. And that's what they're responding to. It's familiar but it's outside the ordinary.” A number of Lumiere Press books are in the collections of rare-book libraries.

The Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art at the State University of New York at New Paltz currently has a remount of the Greenberg anniversary exhibition, including the Lumiere video installation, which will stay up until June 22.

And a few weeks ago, Torosian was back in New York to talk about an idea Greenberg has for a new project, which would span 20 volumes. At his usual pace, that should take Torosian through to 2028. This week, he joked about the prospect of all that work. “It'll give me something to keep me off the streets.”

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