Lightness of Being

By John Reeves

Canadian Art, 1989

Toronto Suite, by Michael Torosian is a collection of portraits featuring 24 artists who have been associated with Toronto art dealer Av Isaacs over the 34 years that Isaacs has been selling contemporary Canadian painting and sculpture. The photographs that make up Toronto Suite were exhibited in May at the Isaacs Gallery, in concert with the launch of a limited edition book of the same name produced by Torosian under his own imprint, Lumiere Press. Illustrated with superb duotone reproductions of all the artist’s portraits, the book also contains a nicely anecdotal text by art historian Dennis Reid.

It’s logical that a fascination with the art Torosian saw at the Isaacs Gallery over the years would lead him to a fascination with the creators of the art. These men and women who have been around, who have fully evolved personalities, people like Joyce Wieland and Graham Coughtry, Gordon Rayner and Michael Snow. They’ve done important work in the visual world and they’re just plain damned interesting – “an extraordinary gallery of human beings,” as Torosian says, “a fabulous set of craniums.” This particular set of great craniums finally impelled Torosian to spend the time necessary to produce one of the finest bodies of documentary portraiture to appear in recent years. These beautifully made, honest, intelligent pictures don’t rely on gonzo lenses, weird lighting and wacko camera angles to achieve haunting, poignant portrayals of their subjects. Toronto Suite works because a skilled photographer has responded to an urge to contemplate and chronicle a splendid hunk of contemporary Canadian art history.

Torosian began to feel a special connectedness between the art of the photograph and the art of the book early in his career. Unlike other visual arts (painting and sculpture for example), which must frequently be reduced in size for book-scaled presentation, cameras tend to produce book-friendly images that measure in inches rather than feet. Photography has naturally entwined itself with the book from its earliest beginnings, when the British photographic pioneer, William Henry Fox Talbot, made his first successful negative-to-positive photographic image in 1835 and contrived to publish the first photographically illustrated book, The Pencil of Nature, in 1844.

Michael Torosian is a photographer with a strong attraction to the craft aspects of his discipline. It’s not surprising, therefore, that he was also drawn to what he saw as the related crafts entailed in bookmaking. His interest in the conjunction of photographs and books developed into something of an obsession. For three years he studied bookbinding at night while he taught himself typographical design, typesetting and letterpress printing.

Torosian established Lumiere Press in 1980, a small private press dedicated to producing limited numbers of beautifully made, carefully considered books for an audience who ideally would be attracted not only to his scholarly and journalistic ideas but also to his own photography.

His first book was a typographic whimsy called Lunarglyphics (1981), but by 1986 Torosian has arrived at a very refined sense of what a Lumiere Press book should be, both physically and editorially. Since 1986, the Homage series books have all measured a standard 6 x 9 inches. They all feature at least one handmade, “tipped-in” photo print (a painstaking process in which the photograph is glued to the surface of the page). While most of the other Lumiere Press books vary somewhat in size and general style, the Homage series is unique in its uniform typographic detailing, the choice of materials for the bindings and the selection of papers to carry the text. Lumiere Press books are printed in limited editions (usually 150 copies) that sell for $75 to $175 each. Obviously, Torosian is doing something right – nearly every book so far has been a sellout.

Editorially the books present new, unusual and unpublished literary, graphic and photographic material. Lumiere has issued three volumes that form part of an ongoing series of homages to photographers whom Torosian regards as important. To date, dues have been paid to Edward Weston (Dedicated to Simplicity, 1986); Michel Lambeth (Confessions of a Tree Taster, 1987); David Heath (Extempore, 1988); and Aaron Siskind (The Siskind Variations, due out in December). The Ninth Street Show, published in 1987, was a celebration of the legendary New York art dealer Leo Castelli’s 80th birthday and 30th year in business, and two books, Aurora (1987) and Toronto Suite, are presentation of Torosian’s own work. This summer, Lumiere Press brought out its first book of full-colour reproductions, Nostalgia For An Unknown Land, consisting of 12 four-colour plates by Rafael Goldchain and an essay by Torosian.

A society that is seriously seeking to develop a rich, resonant culture must engage in a certain amount of cultural show and tell. By the same token, a photographer is never better employed than when setting out to show us people he or she perceives to be in some way specially significant. Michael Torosian has done just that, both in his own work and in his attention to the work of others.

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