When Obsession Goes Against the Grain

by Ted Mumford

NOW, April, 1998

Toronto's Michael Torosian may be the ultimate proof of the viability of niche publishing.

At a time when the book business is marked by numbers that numb - blockbusters selling millions, mergers costing billions - Torosian happily turns out photography books with print runs of 250.

That sort of number would never be viable in the retail mainstream of Chapters and Indigo. Nor would the number on the price tag - Torosian's latest, Gordon Parks: Harlem, costs $150.

Torosian's Lumiere Press counts on a wholly different market, connoisseurs of the book arts who, like Torosian, don't care one bit for the time- and cost-saving computer technologies that have overtaken the graphic arts in the last 20 years.

"If I come up with an idea, I don't think about whether it's cost-effective," says Torosian, seated next to a vintage hot-lead typecasting machine in what is possibly the neatest print shop in creation. "I think about how it affects the aesthetic."

Torosian, a widely exhibited photographer who specializes in portraiture, got the fine-press bug when he first needed to get a portfolio of his work published in the late 70s. Giving up control of the process irked him sufficiently to inspire "a decade of literally obsessive self-education" in design, typecasting, printing and binding.

Torosian's west-end house is now subdivided by Lumiere Press function: letterpress in the basement, editorial HQ on the second floor, print shop in the building he put up in the back yard. A one-man band, Torosian operates everything on site with the assistance of intern photography students from his alma mater, Ryerson.

That Torosian's obsession has borne fruit suggests an axiom unhitched from conventional supply-and-demand - if you follow an idea to the point of obscurity, it will fly. The principle works on several levels.

Torosian's venture is viable in the first place because the same desktop revolution that put cheap technology in the hands of the masses - it's almost impossible to catalogue the travesties of design that ensued, he laments - put it in his hands, too. He bought his officially obsolescent equipment for a song.

Second, as an editor, Torosian looks for subjects that fill a gap in the literature on a major photographer. He's now reading his way through 3,000 pages of material on Alfred Stieglitz to look for his opening.

Tackling tight subjects is a neat organic fit with the physical limitations of a one-man press. None of Lumiere's 15 books breaks 100 pages in length, but even so they require as many as 20,000 cranks of Torosian's hand-operated press. "I've had laser treatment and ultrasound on my elbow," he says with an expression halfway between a grin and a grimace.

The final step in the obscurity-for-success equation is financial. Lumiere's limited editions are so far outside the parameters of conventional Canadian small-press publishing - Lumiere was mistaken for a vanity press when Torosian applied for an Ontario Arts Council grant - that it had to fly internationally or not at all.

Which is what it's done. Lumiere books are collected by top-flight museums like the Victoria and Albert and the Museum of Modern Art, and by collectors who place a premium on the delicate impression and kiss of ink that lead type leaves on mould-made paper.

Gordon Parks: Harlem is the eighth installment in Torosian's Homage series, which previously celebrated such photographers as Edward Weston and Paul Strand.

The text is Torosian's own interview with Parks, Life Magazine's first black photojournalist, who looks back on his breakthrough assignment - "Harlem Gang Leader", in 1948 - and his return to Harlem 20 years later for a kitchen-sink photo essay on one family's desperate poverty. The type and ornaments are carefully selected to evoke Life's heyday.

There are few photos - a Lumiere title is more a book on photography than of photography - but, as always, the ones that do appear are rare and are mostly true photographic prints (rather than reproductions) glued in by hand.

Design, text and images all come together in a serene composition that seems neither antiquarian nor modern. Lumiere books exist out of time, which is part of their appeal.

Nostalgia has no part in Torosian's motivation. He scorns the "arts and crafts" look of most handmade books as much as he does the desktop software that allows anyone sentient enough to sit at a keyboard to spray type across the page. To Torosian, classic typography, letterpress printing and hand binding aren't passe, they're perfection.

"The old guys, they had 500 years to get it right. The digital people have had 10 years."

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