Lead and Light: The Evolution of Lumiere Press

By Ryerson University's Photographic Preservation & Collections Management

Ryerson Image Centre, 2013

In spring 2013, the graduating class of Ryerson University’s Photographic Preservation and Collections Management MA programme, under the guidance of curator, photographic historian, and professor David Harris, produced an exhibition and a publication dedicated to Toronto’s Lumiere Press. Both titled Lead and Light: The Evolution of Lumiere Press, these related projects pursued separate goals: the exhibition—held at the Ryerson Image Centre from May 1 to June 2—explored the twenty-two limited edition photography books released by the press between 1986 and 2013, and focused on the creative and intellectual processes by which they were researched, designed, and meticulously produced; the accompanying publication traces the history of the press through a profile of its founder, Michael Torosian, and provides the first print catalogue of all Lumiere Press titles to date, including their specifications and locations in Toronto’s public collections. In both cases, Lead and Light sought to illuminate and celebrate the link between photography and print, and describe the process of bookmaking in its artisanal form.

A World Apart
The Photography Books of Michael Torosian

During the spring thaw, the laneway leading to Michael Torosian’s Toronto studio is thick with mud. He is visible some distance off, through the open door, head down, working. “Always working, always,” he says, capping his red pen. The studio is very clean, orderly in the way of an Old World apothecary: all closed drawers and small boxes, everything in its right place. Posters from art exhibitions, and others remarkable for their typography, are framed on the walls; a neon Statue of Liberty glows over the door. In the corners are the beasts: an Intertype machine, with which Torosian casts hot lead into type; a Vandercook printing press; and a hundred-year-old German machine for sewing signatures. Torosian is sitting at the room’s one worktable, a wooden workbench covered with brown paper. In front of him is a stack of proofs for the newest Lumiere Press title, about the Black Star photographic agency. It will be the twenty-second book from the press in twenty-seven years, and the twenty-second that the publisher — with the help of a changing clutch of assistants — has developed, designed, edited, printed, and bound himself. He has kept each title to an edition of 250 at most.

It is difficult to separate Torosian from Lumiere Press. He likens it to a home whose every object is designed by its owner, the product of his own aesthetic choices. His evolution as a bookmaker is borne out in the back catalogue; the books grow with his experience. His first, Edward Weston: Dedicated to Simplicity, is a slim volume: twenty-one pages with four black-and-white photographs, the principal text a reminiscence penned by Cole Weston, the photographer’s son. His twenty-first, Steichen: Eduard et Voulangis, about Edward Steichen’s early Modernist period, comprises fifty-five pages and sixteen four-colour lithographs; the essay, by Torosian, aims to augment the scholarly literature on the photographer. Edward is bound in natural linen and smoke-grey paper; Eduard in copper-coloured Asahi Japanese silk, printed in gold with a pattern of Torosian’s design. If he is always working, he is spurred in part by curiosity about what more he can do and how much of it. His projects, therefore, never get any easier. He keeps John F. Kennedy’s popular exhortation about undertaking apparently insurmountable challenges “not because they are easy, but because they are hard” perpetually in mind. “I’ve seen a number of artists plateau doing the same thing over and over,” he says. “I wanted to make sure I never stagnated.”

Torosian began his career as a photographer, one with a particular interest in photography books, despite their lowly status at the time. “In curatorial circles they were considered simply supplementary to exhibitions,” says Torosian. “I didn’t see them that way; I saw them as the main event.” It was their mobility, he thought, that made them indispensable; at the “outer fringes of the known art world,” Toronto in the 1970s, books were often the only point of access to great photographers. “Nothing was coming here at all. Let’s say you admired Alfred Stieglitz. Well, there’s never been a Stieglitz exhibition in Toronto in my entire life. Ever. You consider Stieglitz one of the most important gures in the history of the medium, but you can’t see his work? And then you discover there are very thoughtful books on him....It’s a revelation.” He wanted to have a book of his own photographs published, and did, but he found the result disappointing. “I had made some recommendations to the publisher
—things that I thought would beneath the work. And they just ignored them all.” He needed to be able to speak to art directors “in their own language,” he thought. He began a process of self-education. In the mid-1970s, he visited Glenn Goluska, a typographer and book designer from Chicago who was then working for the Toronto publisher Coach House Press. Goluska had a printing press in his kitchen. “I couldn’t believe it,” Torosian says. “I thought printing presses were the size of school busses, because when you see them in the movies they’re printing the newspaper.” He began to think about finding one for himself, trying to do his own projects. They would be exactly as he wanted them. “The limited edition book of photography, I thought that would be the sweet spot. The equation in my mind was, that to the extent that the book is the true medium of photography, the limited-edition book was the most prestigious form.”

The only formal training Torosian ever received in his métier was a night school class in bookbinding at the local high school in the late-1970s. (“Certainly there was never any discussion about publishing of any kind,” he says. “As a matter of fact, I don’t think I’ve ever had a conversation with anyone about publishing.”) By a stroke of luck—one of many that Torosian partly credits with his success—the course was taught by Emrys Evans, then the head conservator of the University of Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library. Torosian stayed in the course for three years. “This extraordinarily accomplished bookbinder was teaching a bunch of civilians!” Torosian says, his round eyes growing wider. “I was enthralled. I kept meticulous notes, and every single evening after class I’d come home and look over everything we’d discussed and learned.”

In almost thirty years of production, the only major change Torosian can point to was the acquisition of the sewing machine, taking the press “from the seventeenth century to the nineteenth century.” (Before that, he and his assistants would sit in a line with their needles, stitching each book together by hand.) It was a major leap for a shop where new technologies do not exist. “They would upset the ecosystem,” Torosian says. “If you’re going to do things this way, it has to be this way from beginning to end.”

Complications are inevitable. With the exception of the Intertype, which Torosian likens to a nuclear submarine (“I’m still amazed that it’s legal to own one”), he has disassembled and rebuilt every machine in his shop. He is endlessly making repairs, scouring for parts wherever necessary, and calling in the help of others like him around the world. But the setbacks inherent in this way of working are of little import; what matters is that the objects Torosian creates are unachievable through other means. “You only have to see one really beautiful letterpress book, one fine press book, to see that it’s a species unto its own. It’s not like all the other books in the world.”

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