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This Odd House Is a Shrine to Early Photography

The 19th century eccentric Carlos Relvas built a cutting edge home for photography in Golegã, Portugal.
Casa Relvas in Golegã, Portugal. Photograph by the author.

Nestled in the winding cobblestone streets of Golegã, Portugal, a monument to the early days of photography welcomes visitors from around the world. Casa Relvas takes its name from Carlos Relvas, a wealthy Portuguese aristocrat born in November of 1838 in Golegã. Originally Relvas’ state of the art home studio, Casa Relvas is now a tourable museum dedicated to the life, times, and work of its founder. Through interactive storytelling, original photography, visits to the glass-encased studio, and guided tours, visitors get a glimpse into the work behind making photographs in the mid-19th century, and a glimpse into the life of a camera fanatic.

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Portuguese workers on the River Tejo. Photograph by Carlos Relvas circa 1860s. Photo courtesy of Casa Relvas.

Though Carlos Relvas was raised by private tutors and excelled in sports like fencing and horseback riding, he eventually wound up devoting his life to taking, processing, and displaying pictures. His interest in photography started in the early 1860s, and by 1876 he’d toured the world with his camera and constructed Casa Relvas. The man is hard to classify as a certain type of photographer because his work covers several spectrums of style and subject matter. He photographed landscapes in his hometown and around the world, but also made stunning portraits of both high-class and peasant-class people from around Portugal. His work is some of the earliest depicting everyday Portuguese life.

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A side view of the exterior of Casa Relvas, showing the glass and iron photography studio on the second floor. Photograph by the author.

While the man, Carlos Relvas, is incredibly interesting as a subject, Casa Relvas, his grand construction, is itself a work of art. A two-story, multi-purpose studio, Casa Relvas was built in 1876 to be the perfect environment for the photo medium. “The second floor is only glass and iron for receiving light,” explains Dr. Elvira of the Municipality of Golegã. “And inside we have curtains, he thought about this as a way to control light.” These curtains directed light with pinpoint accuracy, allowing Relvas to achieve levels of lighting photographers still struggle with today. “We just had one source of light, natural light. And on the first floor he had closed windows for dark rooms and processing the negatives. For making photography in 1870, this was big.”

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A self-portrait of Carlos Relvas. Photograph by Carlos Relvas circa 1870s. Photo courtesy of Casa Relvas.

To say that Relvas was a visionary is an understatement: “They needed much material, and time, and work, because the process was very primitive,” says Dr. Elvira, “So it was very important he saw the light before the enlightenment.” Now, Golegã is famous for its Lusitano horses, and is world-renowned for its horse festivals, but this small European city is a must-see for visitors traveling through the Tejo region of Portugal (central Portugal) with an interest in photography. Aside from the Musée Nicéphore-Niépce in France, it's no exaggeration to say that Casa Relvas might be one of the most important standing structures in photography history.

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Portraits of a young woman. Photograph by Carlos Relvas circa 1870s. Photo courtesy of Casa Relvas.

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Photograph of Casa Relvas during construction in the 1860s. Photograph by Carlos Relvas. Photo courtesy of Casa Relvas.

For more information on Casa Relvas visit the official site to plan your trip.


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