Marubi collection: Albania glows in old photographs

The Marubi National Museum of Photography in Shkodër is a place like no other. It preserves the work of three successive generations of photographers from the Marubi family in half a million photographs. From the first-ever picture taken in Albania by Pietro Marubi in 1858, its street scenes and portraits are early photojournalism of Albania from its days under the Ottoman rule, monarchy, Italian fascism and postwar communism. It’s where Albania of old comes alive in mostly black and white.

The collection comes from the archive of the Marubi dynasty of photographers which goes back to the first photography studio in Albania, courtesy of an Italian exile Pietro (later Pjetër) Marubi in the 1850s. The true pioneer of Albanian photography, Pjetër passed the trade to his apprentice who then passed it on to his son. The public museum is the result of nationalisation in the hardline communist Albania of the late 1940s where all private property was outlawed.

The earliest – and surprisingly clear – images on display here are of the multicultural Albanian society under the Ottomans. Their presence marked all aspects of life and the most striking evidence of the cosmopolitan Ottoman world captured in the early Marubi pictures is the oriental dress worn at all levels of society. To those familiar with the portrait of Lord Byron wearing the magnificent Albanian dress acquired during his travels in the Balkans these layered garments will ring a few bells.

The independent Albania of the interwar period in the Marubi photographs of the era is a different world altogether. Pjetër’s assistant Mikel Kodheli (later Kel Marubi) is appointed official photographer to King Zog I of Albania and produces portraits of the royalty in full regalia with images of the royal family in their private life. Together with the celebrity shots of Albania’s new elite, these photographs also capture various social rituals of the emerging bourgeoisie in a rapidly westernising country.

The tumultuous 1940s is a time when Albania is handed over from Italian fascists to domestic communists under the leadership of the infamous Enver Hoxha. By 1949, the grand family-run studio comes under state ownership and the profession is put to the service of the communist regime. Many of the photographs are manipulated for communist propaganda but they too, along with the images of workers’ marches and bumper harvests, are witnesses to the spirit of the times.