Turning Back The Pages
by Alex Newman
Azure, May, 1995
The shed behind Michael Torosian's Victorian row house in Toronto's west end does little to reveal the miracle of what is produced there - beautifully rendered, limited-edition books containing thought-provoking essays and hand-tipped, gelatin-silver prints, the fruits of a private publishing venture known as Lumiere Press.
Amply insulated, the studio/shed requires just one tiny heater to warm Torosian and his two Ryerson assistants as they work the monolithic typesetting machine, collate pages or bind them together using a 1926 Brehmer sewing machine. The rose-coloured walls are lined with white shelving, tidily stacked with sea-green boxes bearing carefully centred sticky labels with meticulous black lettering. It is an unremarkable space - thirty-seven square metres, neat and clean like virtually no other print shop - made exceptional by virtue of the high calibre of books published therein.
Born in Fort Erie, Ontario, to a welder who constructed the family home with hammer and saw, Torosian seems to have inherited an ethic of self-reliance and resourcefulness. After graduating from Ryerson's three-year photographic arts program, when he realized his formal education was over, the feeling which overwhelmed him was one of exhilaration. "I had never the temperament to hold a job. I wanted to learn independently," he recalls. So he secured himself lodgings in a rooming house in Cabbagetown, started reading voraciously and photographing endlessly. He allocated twenty-six dollars a week to living expenses, (not princely even for 1973), and occasionally had enough left over at the end of the week for a paperback and a six-pack.
Two years of photographing culminated in a touring exhibition with the Art Gallery of Ontario and a published portfolio of his work. The need to delegate so much of the work to typesetters, printers and binders sparked a desire to learn more of the publishing craft. He wanted to do the whole thing himself. "My feeling," he says, "was that the book was the best vehicle of presentation for photography," citing a harmony between books and photography that goes back to photography's earliest days.
With the exception of bookbinding, his publishing education was entirely auto-didactic. After being introduced to book-designer Glen Goluska, who had a press in his kitchen, Torosian realized for the first time the plausibility of home-base publishing. In 1979, he heard about a print shop shedding one of its presses, which he snatched up for $200 (later replaced by the manually-operated letterpress now in his basement, which requires an average of 10,000 hand cranks for each limited-edition run). "Because letterpress, by the time I discovered it, was becoming obsolete, the equipment was very affordable. The bonus was that the work it produced was exquisitely beautiful. As I became more aware and better educated, I realized that the letterpress was the zenith of bookmaking."
Later he acquired a 1948 variant of the old Linotype machine for setting lead type, a colossus he refers to as "the lynchpin of culture, without which mass publication of books wouldn't have been possible."
Despite his claim to being a quick study, not all the machinery that has come Torosian's way has been easy to learn: the Brehmer sewing machine was so obscure he could find neither a machinist nor a manual - despite two ads he ran in trade publications - to enlighten him as to its rudiments. Until one day he stumbled across a binder in Etobicoke with a similar machine. Up to The Witkin Gallery 25, published in 1994, all the Lumiere Press books were sewn by hand, a job which took Torosian and his two Ryerson assistants weeks to do. The Brehmer now does the job in a fraction of the time. But economy of time is not necessarily one of Torosian's objectives. Before incorporating a new piece of machinery, he must first satisfy himself that the job it does is at least as good as work done by hand: "you can get the most durable, the most beautiful results through hand work, I have found."
Lumiere Press (lumiere because light is the main agent of photography) was established in 1980 and it debut was marked by the publication of Lunarglyphics, a small and eccentric book based on moon-faced type characters. Following that, Torosian published the portfolio of his teacher-mentor Michel Lambeth, then curated a retrospective exhibition of Lambeth's work for he Public Archives of Canada, a two-year project that afforded little time to photograph or write.
Late at night, however, he sketched out all the books that would eventually comprise the Homage series. The series profiles photographic greats Edward Weston, Michel Lambeth, Paul Strand, David Heath, Aaron Siskind and Frederick Sommer, all of whom were Torosian's photographic mentors or influences. Each book employs a different literary approach and a distinct typographic style: Edward Weston: Dedicated to Simplicity features an essay by Weston's youngest son, Cole, printed in Electra; for Michel Lambeth: The Confessions of a Tree Taster, Lambeth's memoir of his youth appears in Janson type; for Naomi Rosenblum's essay in Paul Strand: Orgeval, he used Caledonia type. Each book features at least one handmade, tipped-in, gelatin-silver print. The Strand book reproduces Strand's last photograph, kept in a bank vault in Millertown, New York.
Torosian and Lumiere Press are, perhaps, studies in utility at the service of beauty. There's the studio, with its elemental equipment and functional order, but there's also Torosian's writing, devoid of vague or convoluted artistic statements, yet metaphysical about the nature of seeing; and his photography, clean and incisive, while revealing the beauty of form. As a photographer, he has mastered the ability to cut to the core of his subject's nature, yet he writes in Anatomy, a book of his photography and essays published in 1993, that he eschews the "arrogance developed which proclaimed that the photographer, by capturing one revealing moment, could synthesize the subject's entire personality … the conceit that this was the real person."
The vintage machinery Torosian employs in his bookmaking is, like computer technology, essentially a tool, albeit a more concrete tool. And for all the manual labour he puts into his endeavour, what he hopes for as an outcome is to "avoid the 'arts and crafts' look of hand making … the marks of 'handicraft'." He takes pride in the fact that his books have a "machine-like precision," explaining, "I want them to look like books produced at the zenith of twentieth century letterpress production, perhaps in the 1920s, when this was the predominant technology and journeymen were real masters."
The desire to hold, to fondle the objects that Torosian has created is overwhelmingly the first sensation his books produce, preceding any impulse to take pleasure in the mysteries that a photograph reveals or the intellectual stimulation of the words. There's a sensuality to the feel of real linen and mould-made paper, to the sight of beautifully rendered gold and black-imprinted squares on the cover.
The powerful tactile attraction derives, in part, from the precision, physical care and perfectionism that are hallmarks of Lumiere Press. Take, for example, the boxed set of five slender volumes in the Homage series. Open one of the hardcovers and see that the covering paper is evenly folded and glued flawlessly under the endpapers. Touch the mould-made paper and the perfectly kerned type - how many times has Torosian thrown out galleys of lead type representing hours, even days of typesetting, because they were not perfect? Run your finger down the linen-covered spine and hear how his first attempts to operate the binding machine resulted in the carefully collated pages falling apart.
Being meticulous has its rewards. When Torosian completed the variant edition of Anatomy, quarter bound in leather in a limited edition of eleven, it sold out in a week, snatched up by collectors such as the New York Public Library, which has a complete set of his work. The Lumiere Press has received many awards and much acclaim. In April, the American Institute of Graphic Arts selected The Witkin Gallery 25 for "The Fifty Books of the Year", its prestigious annual design competition.
Torosian, who moves with an ease and physicality around his machines that brings to mind an airplane mechanic or some kind of cerebral grease monkey, keeps his philosophical cards close to his chest. Perfectionist is the label most often applied to him, and quite rightly he deflects all attempts to uncover the psychological root - "I am like this because of some childhood incident?" he snorts derisively, "Self-examination can lead to lurid explanations." When asked what motivates him, he generally quips, "four million years of evolution."