Devoted exclusively to photography and working in the fine press tradition, the books made by Canadian printer Michael Torosian are composed in lead, hand-printed and hand-bound. Over the years, these publications have been acquired by more than 100 public institutions, including The Museum of Modern Art, New York; The International Center of Photography, New York; and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Sean: Why do you do it?
Michael: The long and the short of it is, I believe the book is the medium of photography. Exhibitions are a wonderful form of social participation in the arts, but they are ephemeral and sometimes improvisatory. A book on the other hand is by its very nature definitive. It also allows for a complexity – in the mixture of text and structure – that can’t be attained any other way. And, in the world of photography, I think books have always been the most prestigious form of presentation.
What draws you to work on a particular book?
Over the decades I’ve always had a steady cascade of ideas. Initially, the impetus was to pay tribute to the photographers who had informed and influenced my sense of photography. I also wanted to publish my work as a photographer, and serendipitously, very interesting projects were brought to me.
The basis is almost always an exploration of the biography of the artist and the genesis of the work, but I like to mix it up a bit so that I’m not always doing monographs. I do thematic anthologies once in a while, but at the root of it all is a concern with the development of the creative idea and the arc of revelation in an individual’s experience.
For the most part I select who I want to do a book on and discuss it with them. I think my commitment to excellence is self-evident. For instance, when I met Frederick Sommer for the very first time I showed him a book I’d just completed. He took it and handled it very respectfully and examined it very carefully, and said, “If I was to be remembered by only one book, I would want it to be as beautiful as this.” I think my books are my calling cards and that the artists I’ve worked with have understood this to be a very serious endeavor.
Having learned the rules of design, do you attempt to stray from them when laying out a book?
I believe that book design is a language, and like any language you have to understand the rules – the grammar, syntax, vocabulary, etc. – to be fluent. But once you have absorbed those lessons you are no longer conscience of them. When you speak in your native tongue, you just talk. You don’t analyze what you’re saying. The same thing applies to book design. I think adherence to the “rules” leads to books that look formulaic and dogmatic.
When I design a book I just try to come up with ways of serving my ideas regarding the content. I don’t worry whether they are orthodox or outré. But I do believe that if you are making a limited-edition fine press book you have an obligation to sweat over the design to raise it far above the utilitarian.
What does winning awards mean to you?
It’s nice to have validation I suppose, but there is also a practical aspect. As a publisher you have to be able to promote the books to your audience. Publishing, like all art, is a social phenomenon. Awards bring books to the attention of the public and the collector audience. My job is to put every book I create into the hands of an appreciative collector or public collection. It’s a very straightforward equation.
What is the purpose of the taped conversations and the transcribing? Do you hope to use the recordings again one day, and, if so in what way?
The taped conversations are the fundamental research tool when working on a monographic book on a living artist. I’ve always wondered about curators and art writers who write about an artist and speculate on his motives and methods when they could pick up the phone and ask the person. I want my publications to be replete with primary source material. As such, it has been gratifying that the books have been mined repeatedly over the years. Extracts have appeared in a number of mass market books and I frequently receive emails from scholars working on dissertations for information and permission to cite Lumiere Press publications. As to the future use of the interviews, who knows? For the time being they are part of the Lumiere Press Archives, a well-tended collection of almost fifty boxes of material.
How often do you listen to your instincts? How often do you ignore your instincts?
This is a very interesting question. I think I’ve learned after forty years of artistic practice that the most important thing is to honour your instincts. This is in the realm of what we call “inspiration” or “talent.” There are other schools of thought that somehow imply that creativity can be the product of rationalization, but I think that’s only part of the process, not the main event. In all my work there is a basic impetus that informs what I’m doing. Ignoring that impetus can lead me down an unproductive path and I find myself labouring to get back on track. I can’t tell you how many times the solution to a problem has appeared in my dreams. Literally! That is the ultimate confirmation of the virtue of instinct.
What would happen if, after the months of preliminary work you put into a book, you or the artist suddenly disagree with the direction you are taking?
I’ve never had an artist want to change more than one or two words in a book. I work very hard to ensure that I present the artist’s ideas lucidly and eloquently. These are not collaborations. I am the author, I select the pictures. It is immensely satisfying that my work has always demonstrated a deep understanding of the material entrusted to me.
What, if anything, has changed over the years about your approach to book design?
The most notable thing I think is format. The first 14 books are all the same size!! I did this because I believed that in a small shop the only way to make production viable was to have everything in the manufacturing stream modular. When I got to the Burtynsky book I realized the octavo format I had been using was going to conflict with the horizontal images. I retooled the jigs and reconfigured the machines for the alternate size and it turned out to be no big deal. If you’re spending a year on a book and it takes an extra three or four days to modify the production scheme it’s not really a problem. I wished I’d figured this out sooner. Other than that, all I can say is my ideas about design are constantly evolving.
If you have one piece of knowledge or advice for others which you have learned the hard way from the past 30 years, what would that be?
The single most important thing I think I’ve ever learned is the importance of general aesthetics. I’ve met far too many photographers who only know about photography, painters who only know about painting, etc. I think a fixation on your own medium leads to tunnel vision and the propensity to make work like works you’ve seen.
It is important to be steeped in your medium, but I think if you really want to deeply learn about your art or craft you can only find it through immersion in as broad a range of aesthetic inquiry as possible. This is a complex world and insights into idiosyncrasy and humanity, individuality and universality, invention and innovation cannot be found in one inbred corner. Music, literature, all the visual arts must be explored. I have found answers to my philosophical, thematic and design problems in the sculpture of Isamu Noguchi and Augustus Saint-Gaudens, in the painting of Henri Matisse and John Singer Sargent, in the music of Django Reinhardt and Claude Debussy, in the cinema of John Ford and Akira Kurosawa, in the literature of Mark Twain and Philip Roth, in the amorphous creations of Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp, in the science of Galileo and Richard Feynman, in the architecture of Le Corbusier and Richard Neutra. You get the idea. And for every person I’ve mentioned I can think of fifty that I revere just as much or more in all sorts of fields – the list goes on and on.
And one final piece of advice passed down to me from my mentor, photographer and polymath Michel Lambeth, from his mentor, the sculptor Ossip Zadkine, “Do something every day. Whether it is preparing an armature, doing preparatory drawings or actually working on the sculpture. No matter how important or trivial the activity seems don’t let a day lapse.”
What are you working on at the moment?
The latest project, entitled Black Star, launched in May. It is a book on the New York photo agency Black Star which was founded in 1936. The black and white print collection of almost 300,000 prints was donated to Ryerson University in Toronto in 2005 and I was asked to publish the first book on the collection and the history of the agency.
I’ve tried to create a multi-layered book that presents photojournalistic images spanning the twentieth century along with the narrative of the agency through the lives and experiences of the founders and their successors.
Has printing this way taken a toll on you? Physically, emotionally or otherwise?
The only toll was in the old days when I had a hand-cranked press. One of my books required about 20,000 impressions. By the end of it my elbow was a mess. I’ve since obtained a motorised press. Emotionally? I eat this stuff up. For me there is no greater satisfaction in the world than making something with my own two hands. Books are primarily intellectual endeavors, but when you have a fine press and the intellectual component can be expressed through craft, you have the best of all possible worlds.
Would you change a thing?
I’ve met some of the most important artists of the twentieth century. I’ve only worked on what I felt was meaningful and fulfilling. I’ve spent my adult life in a quest for knowledge and self-education. I’ve sold every book I’ve ever published and been the recipient of thoughtful, appreciative evaluation. I was born lucky.
© Sean Samuels 2013