Being True to Type

by Val Ross

The Globe and Mail, 30 December 1991

You could drive Michael Torosian crazy, right over the edge, if you could just find a flaw or typo in one of the books he makes. Torosian, 39, is the founder, owner, designer, editor, sometimes author, typesetter (by hand), binder (by hand) and quality-control fanatic at Lumiere Press. Lumiere is a little-known but critically successful publisher of limited-edition photography books based in Torosian’s house in the Parkdale district of Toronto.

But you won’t find a flaw. Torosian is too good at what he does.

Lumiere Press turns out about two books a year, by some of the slowest, most painstaking techniques short of quill and parchment. But through Lumiere, Torosian is proving, in his perversely anachronistic way, that a book can be more than its contents.

A book can also be the exquisitely subtle sum of 500-year-old tradition ("The way I make books is not so different from Gutenberg." Torosian says), the feel of textured paper bearing the faintest impression of handset type, the scent of glue and linen, and the look of typeface and ink colour chosen to complement ideas and images. A book can also be the product of the attentive humanity of its maker.

This month, the 11-year-old Lumiere Press marks two milestones. It has brought out its first catalogue, listing three portfolios, nine books and the second milestone: a boxed set of the five slim books in its Homage series (text and photographs chosen by Torosian to pay tribute to photographers who have influenced his work). All 26 Homage sets, priced at $750 each, sold out on the day of issue.

Phil Block, director of education at New York’s International Center of Photography, one of North America’s largest museums of photography, has a standing order with the press for all Homage books. "Torosian exercises consummate craft in his books," says Block, who also collects Torosian privately. "They’re incredibly well-done objects."

Torosian is eager to show just how well-done they are. He opens a copy of his 1989 book Toronto Suite (not one of the Homage books) to the frontispiece and says, "Here I printed in light grey to bring out the weave of the paper – that little hysterical touch." Than he studies the Lumiere Press catalogue, with its pale grey cover. A Baroque sun is printed in black, with Lumiere Press in Wedgewood blue. "I printed four different colours of ink on four different papers to test for the look I wanted." he says.

Comments Block, "The guy is fastidious, right?"

Indeed, Torosian once junked 400 lines of lead type along with hundreds of sheets of high-quality paper printed with the offending type. This was because while proof-reading pages he’d fed, sheet-at-a-time, through his flatbed press, he notice the lines of print getting darker as the crossed the page. He discovered that this was because the type slugs he had cast on his elderly Intertype Model 4 typecasting machine were 3/1,000ths of and inch thicker at one end (causing them to print more darkly) than at the other. Despite the fact that it had taken two weeks to cast the type in the shed at the back of his house – sending it line by line into casters where the molds were injected with molten lead – Torosian did it all over again.

The craftsmanship has a point, however. Most of the books and photography portfolios of Torosian’s Lumiere Press (usually 100 to 200 copies priced from $75 to $150) are sellouts. Roughly half the buyers are institutions, including California’s J. Paul Getty Museum, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, The National Museum (New Zealand) and The National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa.

Perfectionism runs in the family. Torosian’s father, a Fort Erie, Ont., welder, built the family house with a claw hammer and handsaw. "He was a very meticulous craftsman." the son recalls. "I was always aware of the conscientiousness he applied to everything."

The son, a photography graduate from Toronto’s Ryerson Polytechnical Institute, stumbled onto his big challenge in 1976, when he brought out a portfolio of his photographic work, "I had to subcontract everything to others – binders, printers, typesetters. The process intrigued me." So he acquired a 1926 high school shop manual, read voraciously and studied book binding for three years at night school.

By 1980, he was ready. Equipped with a proofing press and old foundry type, he printed up announcement cards proclaiming the birth of Lumiere Press. Its first book, Lunarglyphics, was a playful little oddity using moon characters from an almanac. "The day I brought out my first book my life changed," he says. "I got autonomy." By 1986, he felt ready to launch the Homage series.

Certain design elements unite the series: cover, text, paper, binding, a cover page with a quote from the subject, a previously unpublished photograph of the subject, and an ornament - a floret - on the spine.

But Torosian has used different kinds of text and typeface to complement each subject photographer he profiles. The first book, Dedicated to Simplicity, on Edward Weston, uses Electra to print an essay by the U.S. photographer's youngest son Cole Weston. In Michel Lambeth: The Confessions of a Tree Taster, Torosian uses Janson type for Lambeth's memoir of his youth. Torosian's own interviews, used in the third Homage book, David Heath: Extempore, are printed in Linotype Fairfield. The fourth and fifth, Aaron Siskind: The Siskind Variations (in Trump Medieval) and Paul Strand: Orgeval (in Caledonia), were chosen by the American Institute of Graphic Arts for awards of excellence in 1990. Now that the first set of five books is complete, Torosian says he'll do more.

This means sacrifice. He finances future books through current sales and has never had a government grant. (He does, however, use the labour of interns he recruits from the Ryerson photo arts program).

"I live extremely modestly," he says, looking around the cramped attic room that serves as Lumiere's bindery. "I couldn't maintain morale if I didn't believe in every aspect."

He laughs. "Anyway, I've rendered myself unemployable. One of my helpers says the training he gets here equips him for the 90s - the 1890s."

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