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Marubi Photo Collection

Shkodra's greatest treasure is locked up in a dark, cool room, on the first floor of a nondescript and unmarked block of flats along Rr. Muhamet Gjollesha. A few dozen white wooden cupboards in this room each hold hundreds of small carefully labelled cardboard boxes, and each of those holds a set of thin glass plates, separated from each other by a thin piece of paper. Hold any of these glass plates against the light and you look back in time – for these are all original glass photo negatives with images of a Shkodra that has long gone. With 250,000 negatives covering every major event in the region between 1858 and 1959, this is one of Europe's most valuable photo collections.

The fascinating story of this collection starts with an inverted refugee story. Pietro Marubbi (1834-1905) from Piacenza in northern Italy, fled his homeland for political reasons, and settled in tolerant, open-minded Shkodra in 1856, establishing himself as an artist and architect and taking the name Pjeter Marubi. Two years later he took the first-ever photograph in Albania, set up the first photo studio of the country, and made a living making portrait photos of the local upper class families and the odd revolutionary.

In 1885, he hired an apprentice called Mikel Kodheli (1870-1940), whom he later adopted, renaming him Kel Marubi. Apart from the studo work, Kel Marubi prolifically documented city life: festivals, people at work, street scenes, landscapes with people, buildings and more. He became active in the Albanian national resistance and was in a unique position to document major historical events and personalities.

Kel's son Gege Marubi (1907-1984) studied in France at the Lumiere Brothers' school before working for the family business until the Communist takeover. Gege Marubi donated the whole collection to the Albanian state in 1974.

By that time, the family photo collection had grown to an astounding 150.000 glass negatives. As all Marubis had meticulously kept notes of topics and dates, and carefully stored the photo plates, the collection represents a unique documentation of regional history over a period of nearly 100 years.

The Marubi collection has since been expanded to about 250,000 negatives with the collections of the Pici family (70,000 negatives from 1924-62), the Jakova photo studio (50,000 negatives, 1932-59) and of the Nenshati photo studio (250,000 Leica and Kodak negatives, 1959-85). The latter runs a photo shop on Rruga 13 Dhjetori, and is still documenting city life.

With the aid of a French NGO and UNESCO, the collection is protected from deterioration and properly guarded, and is temporarily housed with a small exhibition space while plans for a proper museum (the former state bank building on Rr. 13 Dhjetori) are being developed.

Another major project is the digitalisation of the collection – tens of thousands of photos have already been painstakingly scanned. The manager of the collection, Mrs Osmani, has been involved with preserving the collection for decades and has spent so much time identifying the topics and people on unmarked photos that she can recognise many long-dead members of Shkodra's prominent families.

The Fototeka currently consists of a hallway hung with about 50 of the most evocative photos from the collection, most with French, Spanish and Italian captions.

National Marubi Photo Collection (Fototeka Kombetare Marubi), Rr. Muhamet Gjollesha, tel. 434 67, Open 08:00 – 16:00, closed Sat, Sun. Admission 100 lek.

Contributions to upkeep the collection are welcome, and beautiful postcards (100 lek) and calendars (900 lek) with photos from the collection are for sale from the office. Large A3-size quality prints of specific images can be ordered; these cost 2500 lek each and take 1-2 days to prepare.

The unmarked entrance of the Fototeka can be found in Rr. Muhamet Gjollesha, between the Ebu Bekr mosque and Rruga Clirimi. Behind the yellow and white exchange kiosks, next to a café, there's a gate leading to the courtyard entrance.

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