What’s on at the Fisher Library?

October, 2019
Allison Zhao, Blog Correspondent
Allison Zhao lives and studies in Toronto. She loves reviewing books, always appreciates cafe recommendations, and probably has a pen you can borrow.

The Lumiere Press Archives

This autumn’s special exhibition at the Fisher Rare Book Library for the autumn combines the art of photography with that of bookmaking. It features the work of Michael Torosian’s Lumiere Press, the only fine press worldwide that focuses exclusively on photography. The Fisher Library recently acquired the Lumiere Press Archives, including all twenty-two books that the press has published to date. The display celebrates both the craftsmanship of Torosian’s entirely handmade books and the art of some of the most influential photographers of the 20th century. 

Stepping inside the dimly lit library, the first item the exhibit offers is where it all began: the official starting point of the Lumiere Press’s publishing endeavours (and the Press’s Homage series) was Edward Weston: Dedicated to Simplicity in 1986. Over the five years leading up to the launch of the book, Michael Torosian had purchased his first printing press and taught himself the art of bookmaking. Dedicated to Simplicity is a joint effort between Torosian and Weston’s youngest son to pay tribute to Weston and his work, famed throughout the photography community for innovation and a compositional approach.

Other photographers that Torosian chose to feature in his Homage series that are now on display at Fisher include Michel Lambeth, renowned for his photojournalism and photographic portraits of Toronto in the 1950s; Aaron Siskind, who provides monologues reflecting on his life and work; Lewis Hine, whose photographs documented and drove social change for working-class Americans in the twentieth century; and Gordon Parks, a ground-breaking, black photojournalist who provided a unique perspective on the American experience.

In between these books on other photographers are collections of Torosian’s own works and photographic explorations, including his works Aurora, Toronto Suite, and Anatomy. The exhibition is unique in that it also brings out sketches and correspondences that offer visitors a glimpse into the amount of planning necessary to produce any of Lumiere Press’s releases.

That’s just the main floor.

If you’ve got the time to lock up your backpack – big purses and bags are not permitted downstairs, but lockers are readily available – the exhibit continues.

Over the last couple of decades, the Lumiere Press has also been involved in printing ephemera, including promotional materials for events, announcements for upcoming books, invitations, and catalogues. These are available for viewing alongside books from other publishers that feature Michael Torosian’s interviews or relevant work. 

For those particularly curious about how each of the Press’s books are produced — typecast in lead, then printed and bound by hand — the exhibit’s lower floor also includes a video of Torosian’s careful process, which must be repeated anywhere between a hundred and fifty to three hundred times for each of the Press’s publications. As well, the Press released a special book in commemoration of this exhibit: a collection of twenty-two essays (one for each of the Press’s books to date) that include reflections from photographers who have previously been featured and Torosian’s experiences as a bookmaker. An iPad has the entire book in PDF form available to peruse as long as you like.

The Lumiere Press Archives exhibit, having opened in September, is set to continue until December, and a new feature on Canadian literature and publishing is planned for the New Year.

The Dance of Death

As October wraps up, so does the Fisher’s monthly highlight – the fittingly spooky Danse macabre, otherwise known as the Dance of Death, an artistic allegory that features the dead, or some sort of personification of death (often skeletons) leading people in a dance to their graves. The motif goes back to the art of the Late Middle Ages, serving as a reminder of the inevitable fate that unites us all. Death is depicted as dancing cheerfully with anyone, including kings, popes, knights, peasants, and children. Beyond its memento mori symbolism, the Dance also serves to make fun of the living’s fear of death, as well as all those who were powerful and influential, reminding them that their status is fleeting and means little once they are gone.

The rise of the Dance of Death comes from a time in Europe when the Black Death and conflicts such as the Hundred Years War had decimated populations, the constant presence of death and reminders of mortality were reflected in art. The first known incarnation of the Dance in visual art dates back to 1424, found in a fresco from a Paris cemetery (appropriately enough) that showed a procession of men of various walks of life alongside skeletons.

This particular cemetery would have been frequented by many visitors and was used as a gathering space, meaning that the fresco was well-positioned to be viewed over the course of the next few hundred years. The wall was demolished in the 1600s and the cemetery itself closed a century later, but evidence of the fresco persisted thanks to the work of a printer, Guyot Marchant, who created woodcuts depicting the area in 1485.

Marchant’s work went on to inspire other artists in the sixteenth century and beyond. One such artist was Hans Holbein, whose woodcuts eventually became so popular that they were published in books and spawned many pirated versions and copies. They were the model for the engravings of Wenceslaus Hollar, which in turn are owned and were displayed by the Fisher Rare Book Library alongside funeral tickets and other depictions of the Dance, such as a woodcut from Michael Wolgemut’s Nuremburg Chronicle.

The imagery of the Danse Macabre has persisted throughout history via political cartoons, paintings, and even Disney animation — a 1929 Disney short features skeletons rising from graves and dancing among the headstones, using their own bones for instruments. Times may have changed drastically, but our fascination with death has never faded.

For those interested in seeing the Dance of Death materials after Halloween has come and gone, they are available via the Fisher Library and some are accessible online.


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