Rudi Thoemmes is the founder and Director of Photobook Bristol. He is also a book dealer, running the website RRB Photobooks (which I learnt stands for Rudi's Rare Books). Photobook Bristol is a four day event with talks by publishers, photographers and other people generally concerned with photography books. It takes place in the South Bank Club and describes itself as 'cosy' which, as a matter of fact, it is: it has a bar, a good-sized room and stage for the talks and another large room for publishers to sell their books in. The atmosphere is relaxed and a lot of the people in attendance seem to know each other.
During a talk Rudi and I stepped outside and he told me about the festival. He said that the aim was to to encourage candid conversation about the photobook world. He had some trenchant things to say about the realities of photobook publishing: 'probably 95% of the books published are paid for by the photographers', about why you don't need a 'fancy Dutch designer' and the consequence of subsidy: making books nobody wants. A lot of this is very reminiscent of a conversation I had four years ago with Tim Borton of the distributor Art Data.
Rudi also said the Arts Council grant for the Arnolfini (a gallery in Bristol) was a waste because 'they hadn't done anything for years', that the Photographers' Gallery was 'conservative and very niche' and that Offprint is 'hyped up'. Rudi is vague about whether the publicly-funded photography galleries around the country are any good (or even aware they exist), but he says 'it would be nice to have a regional alliance of galleries' and from my perspective it seems odd that there is so little exchange between these new photography events (Photobook Bristol, Offprint, Photo London) and the older photography galleries (Photographers' Gallery, Open Eye, Stills, Impressions, Ffotogallery etc.). This may be because of the different focus of galleries and publishers or perhaps it is because these new events are really the creation of the internet – where photobooks are discussed and traded – where the galleries are less prominent or more concerned with their local audience.
So was it worth a trip to Bristol? I enjoyed the talks, especially Martin Parr's conversation with Krass Clement. The food was good. The book dealers had books I wouldn't see anywhere else. The convivial mix of enthusiasts, invited guests and organisers works very well. The community may have been formed elsewhere but it is events like this that reaffirm its purpose.