The photobook is not a new medium – festival co-founder Daniel Boekter-Smith estimates it’s over 150 years old – but if Photobook Melbourne is anything to go by, the format is more relevant than ever. This week sees the launch of Australia’s first festival dedicated to the photobook, including panel discussions, exhibitions of rare works and how-to seminars. It’s a convergence of photography, self-publishing and DIY distribution, and above all it’s a love letter to the photograph in print. We chat with co-founder Daniel Boetker-Smith to find out why photobooks exist at all. Why not just get a Tumblr?

What exactly is a photobook?

There’s a bit of confusion about the term. It’s not just a book of photographs, like a catalogue—it’s a complete work in itself. The book is an object, and the content hopefully supports the fact that it’s collected together in a book. A lot of thought goes into the layout, paper stock, binding and folding. And rather than spending $2000 or more on getting an exhibition up, only for it to come down a couple of weeks later, the photobook really works as a mobile exhibition.

For example, there’s a book called Red String that we’ll be displaying. There have only been 40 copies made. It’s a felt-covered book that unfolds in two different ways, one documenting the photographer’s mother, and the other documenting his father, after their divorce. It’s a fascinating way of telling a story through a physical object. It’s a vibrant form, and it’s really happening now.

Why now?

Over the last five years or so printing has been getting cheaper and cheaper. Up until recently, printing was something printers did, but now people can print really high quality in their own home. Some of the best books I have in my own library (AsiaPacific Photobook Archive) have been printed on home computers and hand-stapled. But it really works.

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So there’s been a huge growth in interest in photobook publishing, from the large publishers such as Phaidon and Thames & Hudson right down to self-publishers—people are producing books in their bedrooms, and printing runs of 50. There’s been a real shift in the power structures of publishing.

Internationally, there are more and more festivals now dedicated to photobooks. There are lots of events on how to self-publish, distribute… Up until now the focus has been in America and Europe. We wanted to bring it to Australia, and to show the world what’s happening here, particularly in Melbourne, where there are a dozen or more little photobook publishing houses.

So rather than just displaying material, this festival is opening a discussion, isn’t it?

Totally. And we’ve got a few leading photographic academics giving talks as well, discussing what a photobook is. We have a lot of self-publishers and designers involved in talks and seminars talking about the developments all over the world. There’s a how-to element, but there’s also a celebratory element.

Print is somewhat retro, isn’t it? Surely even with the leaps in printing technology, digital is easier?

Photography has always been very democratic, depending on how you look at it, and now anyone can publish books and disseminate them around the world. But this is different to just putting them on a website. If I see someone’s photographs I like on a website, I don’t look at it repeatedly. I see the work and I move on. With a photobook, I go back again and again.

A book becomes part of your life. You have it in our house when you get divorced, when your parents die, when you grow old. It’s an object that gains significance. It’s very different to something that you just look at on a screen. Despite the fact that the format is so old, the photobook is in its infancy in terms of exploring what it means.

Photobook Melbourne runs at various venues across town from February 12 to 22.