Today’s post presents two photobooks devoted to the two settlements designated by the Albanian government “musem-cities” [qytet-muze] under socialism. (Both became UNESCO sites after socialism’s end.)
The former, with a text by Emin Riza and photographs by Refik Veseli, is devoted to the southern Albanian city of Gjirokastra, the birthplace of Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha. Gjirokastra: Qytet-Muze includes a wealth of images of the ancient and Ottoman-era cultural heritage in the city, as well as an impressive documentation of socialist-era buildings and monuments. (Interestingly, Hektor Dule’s monument to the battles of Skënderbeu–already seemingly out of place in the southern city–is omitted.) There are also images of the interiors of the major museums created in Gjirokastra during socialism, which are invaluable for understanding Albanian socialist-era exhibition design.
The second book, published almost a decade later, with a text by Gazi Strazimiri and photographs by Refik Veseli, focuses on the southern Albanian city of Berat, located between Mount Tomorr and Mount Shpirag (the latter the site of Armando Lulaj’s NEVER, of 2012). Berati: Qytet-Muze likewise focuses on the ancient and Ottoman-era structures in the city, as well as modern urban restructuring and industrial architecture (such as the massive ‘Mao Zedong’ Textile Factory, which of course–by 1978–was no longer identified with Mao). There are also interesting images of socialist-era monuments, although there are relatively few of these in comparison to Gjirokastra.
Of particular interest is a panoramic view of the city of Berat that features the massive ENVER geoglyph in the background, across the slopes of Mt. Shpirag. Upon closer examination, however, the letters have been inscribed not on the mountain itself, but on the photograph: little attempt has even been made to make the letters correspond to the visual rules of perspectival recession into space. They appear to hover over the landscape, perhaps unintentionally positing the flatness of the photograph itself as the surface of history, rather than the immensity of the landscape indexed by the image. The image, therefore, clearly represents the alteration of a photograph made before the creation of the ENVER geoglyph in 1968, a studious updating of the landscape to match its more current visual actuality. Alterations of photographs—whether to contribute to the rewriting of history or to increase the legibility of the history supposedly depicted by them (or both)—were not uncommon in socialist culture, and Albania was no exception to this. This particular textual supplement to the panorama of Berat must have been particularly significant in 1987, just two years after Enver Hoxha—Albania’s socialist leader and eventually dictator from 1944 through 1985—died. Regardless of precisely when the photograph was originally altered, the inscription on Shpirag’s slopes represents an attempt to assert Hoxha’s longevity not only forward into the future (as the permanence of the geoglyph was not doubt meant to) but also backwards in time, as if it was somehow part of an eternal view of the city of Berat and the mountain. Of course, the details of this retroactive eternity were loose: close consideration of the photograph in comparison to later images reveals that the letters do not even appear on the correct slopes, but have been shifted to the left. This inexactness, however, has its own logic—its imprecision is the imprecision of myth, rather than the precision of documentation. This altered photograph provides a fascinating piece in the history to which Armando Lulaj’s subsequent re-writing of the geoglyph in NEVER (2012) belongs: a history of reinscribing the geoglyph across various historical surfaces: photographs as well as the mountain itself.[i]
[i] On this topic, see Chapter 4 of my forthcoming dissertation, Monumental Endeavors: Sculpting History in Southeastern Europe, 1960-2016, which focuses on postsocialist negations and temporal extensions of monuments in Albania and the former Yugoslavia.