Early Photography in Albania
Robert Elsie
Rose Wilder Lane
The Photo Collection of Rose Wilder Lane Northern Albania in 1922
AL Photography Rose Wilder Lane - Photo Collection Webdesign J. Gross TOP
The American writer Rose Wilder Lane (1886-1968) was born in South Dakota, the daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder (1867-1957), author of the Little House on the Prairie books, and was raised in Missouri. At the age of seventeen, she went to work at the Western Union in Kansas City and, in 1908, moved to San Francisco, where she began writing for the women’s page of the San Francisco Bulletin. With her short stories for women’s magazines, she was soon to become the highest-paid female writer in the United States. After the publication of her first book, she accepted a job at the American Red Cross and Near East Relief, investigating and reporting to the press on conditions in Europe and the Near East in order to raise money for relief work. She began work at the Red Cross office in Paris and, from there, travelled to Italy, Greece, Yugoslavia and Albania, which was her lasting interest.
Rose Wilder Lane was shortly to move on from the refugee camp that she was visiting in Shkodra when a fellow American Red Cross worker, Frances Hardy, persuaded her to join a small party which was about to embark on an expedition to the northern Albanian mountains to set up schools. “Constantinople’s nothing. Everyone goes to Constantinople. But if you don’t see Albania, you’re wasting the chance of a lifetime. Up in those mountains – right up there in those mountains, a day’s journey from here – the people are living as they lived twenty centuries ago, before the Greek or the Roman or the Slav was ever known. There are prehistoric cities up there, old legends, songs, customs that no one knows anything about. No stranger’s ever even seen them. Great Scott, woman! And you sit there and talk about Constantinople!” “But if nobody goes there, how can we do so?” I said. “How does anyone ever do anything? Simply do it. Hire horses, get on them, and go.” “Carrying our own guns?” “Oh, we’ll be safe enough! We may run into a blood feud or two, and get our guides shot up, but nobody ever harms a woman. Nobody even shoots a man in her presence.” Rose Wilder Lane abruptly changed her plans and set off with Frances and another woman, Margaret (Alex) Alexander. Also of the party was her future adopted son, Rexh Meta, a twelve-year-old refugee from Kosovo who had lost his parents and had walked miles to Scutari with other children to reach the refugee camp. There he had learned English. With them in addition was Rrok Perolli, an employee of the Albanian ministry of the interior as their interpreter. A year before that, Rrok Perolli had been in a Serbian prison and had been sentenced to death. He escaped and, at great risk, had managed to get over the border to Albania. He was afraid that the mountain tribes would hand him over to the Serbs. It was this journey in 1921 which inspired her book Peaks of Shala, Being a Record of Certain Wanderings among the Hill-tribes of Albania, London 1922, one of the most delightful contributions to America’s discovery of Albania in the early decades of the twentieth century. Rose Wilder Lane was not an anthropologist with a profound knowledge of the Balkans, nor was she an experienced political commentator like her scholarly though witty British predecessor, Edith Durham; she was not even a specialist in travel literature as such. But what she was able to do was to bring the very foreign world of the highland tribes of northern Albania home to the American reading public, and this she accomplished with eminent skill and simplicity. Despite its exotic subject matter, the Peaks of Shala was an immediate success when it was published. Indeed, it went through three printings soon after its first appearance on the book market. In 1926, five years after her trip to the Shala district, she returned to Albania with her girlfriend, the author Helen Dore Boylston (1895-1984), and their reluctant French maid, Yvonne, with the intention of building a house and settling there for good. The narrative of their journey from Paris to Tirana in a Model T Ford called Zenobia was published by William Holtz in the volume Travels with Zenobia, Paris to Albania in a Model T Ford: A Journal by Rose Wilder Lane and Helen Dore Boylston, Columbia 1983. For family reasons, Rose’s dream of living in Albania permanently with Helen was not to be fulfilled and she was forced to sail back to America in early 1928. The Great Depression after the collapse of the market in Wall Street in 1929 soon set in and all hopes of return to her beloved Albania had to be abandoned. She died in 1968 at the age of 81, on the eve of a planned trip around the world. The photos in this collection were not taken by Rose Wilder Lane herself during her 1921 trek. When she was back in Albania the following year, she had a photographer, Annette (Peggy) Marquis, and two guides do the same trip she had taken the year before. This time, the weather was better and the journey was not quite as arduous. After much adventure, Annette got back safe and sound, but the camera had fallen into the water and the negatives only narrowly survived.
Rose Wilder Lane (1886-1968). Cover of the book "Peaks of Shala". Helen Dore Boylston (1895-1984). Rose Wilder Lane - Photo Collection