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Many Tribes: The Australian & New Zealand Photobook

A talk by Doug Spowart

The photobook disrupted the 1990’s prediction that ‘the book is dead’ and grew into a worldwide phenomenon. Doug Spowart will address key aspects of the historical and contemporary makeup of the photobook in Australia & New Zealand where the various ‘tribes’ contribute to a vibrant and progressive discipline.

October 12 @ 2pm, World Photobook Weekend Hub
Mitchell Harris Wines, 38 Doveton Street North


What follows in this Blog post is a synopsis of the presentation with references to various aspects of the Australian and New Zealand photobook scene. Where possible links have been provided to external sources for further information.

Please note: This presentation is part of ongoing research and will be added to and refined as new information becomes available.


Photobook Talk: Introductory comments


At 2.00pm I welcomed the 30 or so people who attended this BIFB Photobook Weekend event.

In the opening statements I acknowledged the Traditional Custodians, the Wathaurong people of the land on which we met, and recognised their continuing connection to land, water and community. I paid my respects to Elders past, present and emerging. And I also wished to recognise the importance of storytelling and its continuing tradition today…

I announced to the attendees that due to the recent passing of the doyen of New Zealand photobooks Harvey Benge, that the event would be dedicated to his memory.

With these formalities completed I began the talk:


Doug Spowart and ANZ photobooks he loves
Doug Spowart and ANZ photobooks he loves …Photo: Victoria Cooper


I have been working in photography for over 50 years and the photobook has been, and continues to be – my teacher, inspiration and obsession. I have read, bought, collected, loaned books and on occasion not given them back to their rightful owners because they were so special to me and I couldn’t part with them.

In my youth these books inspired and fed my insatiable curiosity of the world and informed me of its challenges and wonders beyond my own experience.

Over time I encountered an increasing diversity and depth in all forms of books and their makers of photobooks, artists’ books and zines. I became interested and involved in each of these different groups researching and documenting their aims, manifestos, their key practitioners, education alliances and reward structures. Much like ‘tribes’ these communities of creative practice gather together within the rich milieu of visual communication through the form of the book.


But First – a little photobook history

In 1839 William Henry Fox Talbot, one of the key inventors of photography, stated that photography would make, Every man his own printer and publisher. He went on in 1844 to publish the book, The Pencil of Nature as a treatise on the uses of photography using his calotype process.


Anna Atkins and Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions.


Scientific illustrator Anna Atkins used the ‘blue print’ cyanotype process to produce a book in 1843 entitled Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions. Atkins’ book is recognized as the first photobook as images and texts were printed on the page at the same time – whereas Talbot’s prints glued or tipped-in on the pages and the text printed using letterpress. In recent years the date that Atkins’ book was catalogued by the British Library, October 14 1843, has become celebrated as ‘World Photobook Day’.

In the 175 years since the Atkins and Talbot, the use of photographs in books has developed into a powerful carrier of information and ideas either with or without text. Book design including format, paper selection, layout, typography and production methods have also developed in companionship with this growing interest in the photobook as a form of communication. The onset of desktop and online publishing created an environment where individuals and collectives could independently publish. The art and commercial process of book production and publication is under an epic transformation. Talbot’s phrase – Every man [or woman] his [her] own printer and publisher has become a reality.


Early reference books about photographically illustrated books and photobooks


The ‘Photobook’

Historically bibliographers have categorised books with photographic narrative or content using the terms ‘photographic book’ or ‘photographically illustrated book’.

Over the last 20 years however interest in the photographic book emerged encouraged by the critical review and commentary of the discipline in publications starting with Phillip Roth’s 2001 The Book of 101 Books: Seminal Photographic Books of the Twentieth Century, and the 2004 ICP exhibition and publication, The open book : a history of the photographic book from 1878 to the present. However the term ‘photobook’ came to prominence as a result of three tomes published in 2004, 2006 & 2013 by Martin Parr and Gerry Badger The Photobook: A History. Originally the purpose of the discussion in these books was to establish a cannon for photographic books. Later the term photobook came to encompass all kinds of books including those from the contemporary boom in trade and self-published books.

Within a few short years the photobook became a publishing phenomenon. Whilst frameworks may have previously existed in the publishing world the drivers of the new photobook discipline – mainly photographers, created hierarchies consisting of awards, criticism, knowledge sharing and educational structures, supported by boutique publishers as well as the powerful established brands. Photobook designers also found new recognition for the unique contribution that they could make in transforming a photographer’s body of work, often in collaboration with the photographer, into a work of visual communication. Scholarship and collector market interest spawned bookshelves of critiques, surveys and catalogues covering the books from just about every nation of the world. Social media hype by key influencers and their particular sphere of interest set trends and photobooks became a sexy, desirable and collectible commodity.




Within its remote geographic location the Antipodean photographically illustrated book was very much based on trade published books that reflected the needs and interests of society. Publishers selected books containing content that would be highly saleable to the public. Of concern to the publisher was the book format, production values at a price that would provide an appropriate return on the investment. In the 100 years from 1900 books published followed certain themes and subject matter.

  • 1900/30 Illustration/pictorial/documentary
  • 1940–50 Nationalistic pride/immigration
  • 1960s Discovering/celebrating who we are as a people
  • 1970s – The political book
  • 1980–90s – A celebration of landscape and the wilderness
  • 1990 Exploring visual storytelling + Documentary

For a more illustrated discussion of this topic please see the lecture slides from my 2017 Vienna Photobook Festival lecture.


Australian & New Zealand Photobook of the Year Awards book from 2017   …PHOTO: Courtesy MomentoPro


The Antipodean Photobook – A CONTEMPORARY VIEW

To have a perceived currency in the global scene the Antipodean photobook – its practice, publishing and marketing has been arguably influenced by the Euro/US market and taste. Where does this place the local photobooks? Does it merely mimic the Northern hemisphere’s trends in their book products? While some aspects of practice do take their lead from the cross Atlantic product, could its isolation have enabled the Antipodean photobook discipline to develop in other ways. Photographers from this region have their own unique and intimate vision. They have access to variety of subject matter from the social circumstances of people, to environments and political spaces. They also have opportunities to connect with local allied creatives in book design, publishing and printing technologies including print-on-demand and desktop self-print.


The Antipodean Photobook – TRIBES

In this talk I want to highlight the diversity of this region’s creative potential and participation in the photobook medium. In that diversity there are various groups that can be recognised and acknowledged as publishing an Antipodean view. In my review of Australian and New Zealand photobook publishing I have found the following author groups or collectives with their associated motivations:

  • Those who make books for the general market that will be sold through online or bricks and mortar bookshops
  • Those who make books for a discerning clientele sold in specialized art/architecture/design bookshops or gallery bookstores
  • Self-publishers making books by POD or hand-making intended for the art book market
  • Self-publishers making zines and ephemera for free distribution through their culturally-connected venues
  • Those who were once called ‘vanity publishers’ – making books because they can
  • Those who make publish political manifestos
  • Those who publish with the principles of altruism – creating books to distribute ideas and social comment
  • Artists who make ‘fine art’ books for collectors and public collections.

Each of these makers associate, collaborate, and form associations – both personal, professionally and organisationally with like-minded people who share their interests. For some time I called these groups or collectives ‘tribes’. Distance separates photobook makers in Melbourne from their peers in Sydney, or for that matter with Adelaide or Brisbane. Similarly Australian photobook makers may not have any significant connection with New Zealand makers and vis-à-versa. Other ‘tribes’ may exist in the fields of academe, design and publishing as well as areas relating to the collection and criticism of photobooks. Then there are different ‘tribes’ for those that sell photobooks with some having a specific interest in antiquarian or historical photobooks, whilst others may focus on contemporary books. Certainly there are practitioners who crossover into different tribal groups but generally each tribe stands alone.

Whatever the ‘tribe’ there is a rich and diverse community of practice for photobooks in Australia and New Zealand replete with events and supporting structures.







Bookshops and online sellers

Supporting organisations + Interesting stuff


ANZ-Photobook scene


The Antipodean Photobook – MAJOR CONTRIBUTORS


The Asia Pacific Photobook Archive

A contributor to the ANZ photobook scene is the large collection of photobooks assembled by the Asia Pacific Photobook Archive. APPA was founded by Daniel Boetker-Smith in 2013 and is now coordinated by Daniel and Bella Capezio. The Archive is a not-for-profit open-access physical archive of self-published and independent photobooks and is now situated in Le Space in Collingwood, Melbourne. Contained within the Archive is a significant collection of contemporary photobooks from the Asia/Pacific region with some books coming from the western Asian region. Books in the Archive can be accessed by appointment and may also be presented from time to time in exhibitions, presentations and displays.

APPA mosaic


Perimeter Books

Leading the push to publish and present Antipodean photobooks and artbooks to the world is the Melbourne publisher Perimeter Books. Founded by Dan Rule and Justine Ellis, Perimeter Books has developed a solid presence at all the major artbook fairs around the world. Additionally Perimeter’s bookshops and online service brings specialist books from the contemporary international scene within reach of the local market. They have supported and promoted local photo and artbook authors through their annual Small Book Award.

Justine Ellis & Dan Rule – Perimeter Books


Photobooks in education – Photography Studies College

For some time photo educators in all levels of academic study have included the photobook as a capstone project or a holistic assessment assignment. In recent years many of the graduates of these institutions enter the photobook scene with a significant publication that launches their publishing career.

One Australian institution, Photography Studies College (PSC) in Melbourne, has nurtured many emerging photobook makers including Sarah Walker – Winner of the ANZ Photobook Award and the Perimeter Small Book Prize. The engine that drives the PSC photobook is Course Director Daniel Boetker-Smith assisted by a team of lecturers themselves photobook authors. PSC has also supported special events for the wider photobook community including workshops and lectures with the photobook doyen Martin Parr, the acclaimed designer Teun van der Heidjen and the educator associate professor Corinne Noordenbos.

PSC Quad

MomentoPro Sponsorship of ANZ Photobooks

Significant enablers to the local recognition of our photobooks include the yearly photobook awards that bring together a diverse selection of books for their critical evaluation and recognition. Coordinated and supported by the photobook print-on-demand company MomentoPro with the Patrons Libby Jeffery and Geoff Hunt, this yearly event creates a focus for the Antipodean photobook community of practice.

The MomentoPro organization has also altruistically supported many other major local events including Photobook New Zealand in 2016 & 18 and Photobook Melbourne in 2015 as well as numerous awards both national and local for photobooks. In 2017 MomentoPro supported the freight costs towards getting the ANZ Photobook Awards to the Vienna Photobook Festival.

What follows is a small selection of events supported by MomentoPro…

MomentoPro mosaic


ANZ photobooks puchased by the Tate

In early 2019 a collection of 52 ANZ photobooks curated by Victoria Cooper and myself were accepted into the UK Tate Library. The project was initiated by Martin Parr to add Antipodean content to the 12.5k photobooks that he had donated to the Tate in 2017.

Martin Parr reviewing ANZ photobooks with Doug Spowart at the State Library of Victoria

Documenting the history ANZ photobooks

Over the last 3 years I have been adding to the information about ANZ photobooks by the compilation of a COMPENDIUM of all things about the Australian and New Zealand photobook discipline. The latest edition of the Compendium focused on the Australian scene and was launched at the Melbourne Art Book Fair in March this year. I am presently working on an update of the New Zealand listings for Photobook New Zealand in March 2020.

Compendium mosaic

A Conclusion

What I hope for is that through the recognition of the different ‘tribes’ in the Antipodean photobook that I have discussed today, we can celebrate the diversity of practice that has developed in this part of the world. Through recording, highlighting and discussion of the photobook discipline in the Antipodes will be made visible and find its place within the international scene.

In the meantime what continues to excite me about photobooks is that materialised in each book is a concept revealed, a view shared, an opinion expressed, a shout uttered or a tender moment whispered. And while the author’s life moves on – the books are left behind on shelves in libraries, on coffee tables and left casually opened on the bedside table. The photobook, is the ultimate intimate and portable archive of the life and times of the artist …

… for future reading…


Doug Spowart

A revised version of the talk presented at the 2019 Ballarat International Foto Biennalé on October 12.



Documenting the Antipodean Photobook

My research in the Antipodean photobook world its tribes and the discipline is on-going. I may have met many people, participated in numerous events and looked and lusted after maybe thousands of books, but I find it is an ever-expanding space of creative activity. Wherever possible I document the people and places I encounter …





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NOTE: Should any captions in this post contain incorrect information please contact us and advise so we can make the necessary changes.


All photographs, unless indicated otherwise, are the copyright of Doug Spowart.
Please contact Doug Spowart to access permission to copy or use images for any purpose.
Text ©2019 Doug Spowart

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