Marubi Studio: Early Albanian Photography at FOAM in Amsterdam

Imagine my surprise: last month while visiting FOAM, a photography center in Amsterdam, I caught the last days of Dynasty Marubi: A Hundred Years of Albanian Studio Photography–an exhibition based on an archive in northern Albania that I happened to have visited in the summer of 2013. Curated by Kim Knoppers in collaboration with Luçjan Bedeni, Director of the Marubi National Museum of Photography in Shkoder, Albania, this exhibition is one of the first times the images have been shown so far from their hometown and the only time that the original glass negatives have left Albania. The incredible collection of over 150,000 glass plate negatives from three generations of the Marubi studio documents the social life of northern Albania from the decline of the Ottoman Empire, to independence, to the Communist regime of Enver Hoxha.

Self-portrait of Kel Marubi with his Wife in the Studio, no date, Silver gelatin dry process on glass.

Self-portrait of Kel Marubi with his wife in the studio, undated. Silver gelatin dry process on glass

Photography provided a modern form of self-fashioning that citizens of Shkoder took to with seeming abandon, perhaps surprisingly given the partially Muslim population and Islam’s prohibition on figurative images. Kel Marubi uses the photograph above to tell us about his respectable profession (the background replete with the latest technology in cameras), his marriage (his wife prominently sharing the space and mirroring his posture), and his national pride (the traditional clothing identifies them as Albanian). The couple sits in front of the painted backdrop that appears again and again in these images.

Kel Marubi, Catholic veiled women, Shkoder, c. 1890-1918

Consider the strangeness of the portrait of two women pictured above. Perhaps it would be more apt to call it a cipher of a portrait, for the women in their traditional modest dress are fully covered from head to toe, even their faces. If a portrait is usually made to capture the likeness of an individual, here all distinguishing attributes are covered. The doubling of their postures also suggests something uncanny to the modern eye. Curiosity about this lesser known part of the world among Europeans created a secondary market for the images to be reused in postcards, and a portrait like this one gained a second function documenting the traditional costume of the region. The postcard above, stamped with Kel Marubi’s name, reads “Memory of Shkoder” across the bottom.

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Three generations of technically advanced photography took place in Shkoder because Pietro Marubi fled there because of political trouble in Italy. He opened a commercial photography studio in Shkoder in 1856. Pietro originally used the collodion wet plate process that had been invented only five years before. He created commercial portraits for cartes de visites, views of the town and countryside, studies of people, and technically inventive collages. Pietro took on a local youth named Kel  as an apprentice. Kel took the surname Marubi and continued the business, and later Kel’s son Gegë would took over the business from him. On the cutting edge of photography, all three members trained in centers such as Trieste and Paris and were keen to experiment, as evidenced by the early examples of collage, stereoscopic techniques, and, later, infrared photography.

Installation view of early collages, above, and glass plate negatives in the vitrine at FOAM

Although an enormous archive of over 150,000 glass plate negatives remain, almost no original prints do–they were all sold, either to the commissioner or to a newspaper (e.g. The London Illustrated News and L’Illustration) or as a postcard. If Pietro Marubi began taking photographs in and around Shkoder during the twilight of the Ottoman Empire, which ended in 1912, first Kel and later Gegë Marubi continued his legacy into the Communist period beginning in 1946. Gegë eventually donated the archives to the state and worked on their preservation until the end of his life. The world changed dramatically during this time, but the photographs attest to continuity as well as rupture; throughout one sees the traditional regional clothing, rocky landscapes, and painted backdrops that accommodated all kinds of sitters.

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