Albania, and its culture and history, are to be discovered and appreciated not only through texts, but also through photography. For this reason we have chosen here to offer a few rare glimpses into the past of the Albanian people in collections of early photographs.
The First Photographers in Albania and the Southwest Balkans
On his trip through Albania, Kosova and Macedonia in the autumn of 1863, Johann Georg von Hahn (1811-1869), the father of Albanian studies, was accompanied by the Viennese photographer, Josef Székely (ca. 1838-1901), who is said to have taken some of the first photos of Albania. The collection consists of fifty photos, including views of Shkodra, Prizren, Ohrid and Monastir (Bitola).
By the end of the nineteenth century and in the early decades of the twentieth, it was common for foreign scholars, writers and adventurers travelling in Albania to take cameras with them and to record what they saw. Much of their material, not always photos of high quality, served to illustrate their book publications on Albania. Other collections were never published at all and remain to be discovered – a century later.
The history of native photography in this region of southeastern Europe, i.e. the work of photographers stemming from the region itself, is indelibly linked to two great collections.
The Marubi Photo Collection (Fototeka Marubi) in Shkodra comprises over 150,000 photos, many of which are of great historical, artistic and cultural significance. It was compiled by three generations of photographers. Pietro Marubbi or Marubi (1834-1903) was an Italian painter and photographer who, as a supporter of Garibaldi, had emigrated from Piacenza, Italy, to Shkodra for political reasons around the year 1850. There, he founded a photo business, Foto Marubi, with cameras he had brought with him. The oldest photos in the collection date from 1858- 1859. Some of them were published in The London Illustrated News, the La Guerra d’Oriente and L’Illustration. Marubi was assisted by the young Rrok Kodheli (1862-1881) and his brother, Kel Kodheli (1870-1940), the latter of whom took over the family business after Pietro’s death and changed his name to Kel Marubi. He furthered techniques with special effects and learned to retouch the negatives. He also began photographing outside the studio with more advanced cameras.
Closely related to the Marubis was the photographer and painter, Kolë Idromeno (1860-1939), of Shkodra. With the help of Pietro Marubbi, from whom he learned the art of photography, the young Idromeno was able to travel to Venice in 1875 to attend the Academy of Fine Arts. However, he did not survive the rigours of formal training and gave up after six months. He remained in Venice though, and worked for a few years as the assistant of an established Venetian painter, returning to Albania in 1878. In 1883, he opened a photo studio with cameras imported from the Pathé Company in France. In 1912, he became the first person in Albania to import moving picture equipment and to show films. In August of that year, he signed a contract with the Josef Stauber Company in Austria to set up the country’s first, rudimentary public cinema.
The third generation of Marubi photographers in the family was Kel’s son, Gegë Marubi (1907-1984). He studied in Lyon in 1923-1927 at the first school of photography and cinema, founded by the Lumière brothers, and worked in Shkodra as a professional photographer from 1928 to 1940. He pioneered working with celluloid instead of glass plates.
The Marubi photo collection captures and documents northern Albanian history from the League of Prizren onwards. It contains fascinating photographs of tribal leaders, highland uprisings, town life in Shkodra and various public events. Only a few of the photos have been published. Attempts have been underway since 1994, with UNESCO funding, to preserve the collection and make it available.
The other great collection of Balkan photography and cinematography is that of the Manakis brothers in Macedonia. Yannaki Manakis (1878-1954) and his brother, Milton Manakis (1882-1964), were born in Avdela near Grevena – now in northern Greece – and were of Aromanian (Vlach) origin. From 1898 to 1904 they owned a photo shop in Janina (Ioannina), and in 1905 they moved to Monastir (Manastir/Bitola) – now in the Republic of Macedonia – where they opened a Studio for Art Photography. Yannaki and Milton Manakis took more than 17,300 photographs in 120 localities. In 1905, they also made the first moving pictures in the Balkans.
In Albania itself are the collections of Shan Pici (ca. 70,000 photos), Dedë Jakova (ca. 50,000 photos) and Raboshta which are closely related to the Marubi school of photography in Shkodra. Other significant collections of early Albanian photography are to be found in Korça. Among them are the works of Petro Dhimitri (1861-1946), originally a travelling photographer in the 1890s; Kristaq Sulidhi, who learned the profession in Greece; and Vani Burda from Bucharest who opened a photo studio in Korça in 1920. Of particular interest is Kristaq Sotiri (1883-1970) of Korça, student of Sulidhi, who emigrated to the United States in 1902-1903 and worked as a photographer in New York and Los Angeles. In 1923 he returned to his native Korça and, with the Korça landscape painter, Vangjush Mio (1891- 1957), he opened the Sotir Studio which was well known in southeastern Albania. About 14,000 photos from this collection have been preserved. Mention may also be made of Ymer Bali of Tirana, Mandi Koçi (1912-1982) of Voskopoja, Jani Ristani from the Gjirokastra region, Misto Cici of Pogradec and Xhimitiku of Berat. Last but not least in the history of Albanian photography, though not directly related to Albania itself, is Gjon Mili (1904-1984) who emigrated to the United States in 1923, studied at the Massachussetts Institute of Technology and enjoyed a substantial reputation as a photographer for the American magazines, Life and Fortune.
This website is not intended to offer a systematic presentation of Albanian photography. It does, however, endeavour to present a few collections, little known up to the present, of early photography of Albania and the Albanians.