In 1999 I bought a very special lens: the Namias Anachromatic Double Lens F5 40 cm focal length Ortho Aesculin, circa 1910. At the time, all I knew about it was that it was Italian, a rarity for brass barrel lenses, and the price was right, about $50. After mounting it on a lens board, I hooked it up to my 16x20” view camera. The focal length was a little bit short for this format, but it was perfect for shooting still-life botanicals in my studio. I was immediately impressed by its beautiful soft focus qualities and it became my lens of choice for about 20 images I produced in 2000.
Before I took any images, I gave the lens a thorough cleaning. I took apart the barrel to clean the double elements and noticed that it had a unique and strangely placed disk of glass: two different-colored pieces of glass, sandwiched together between the two elements. I thought it might be a place-holder for color filters, but I had never seen anything like it before. Once I started shooting, I was getting images with such glowy, soft focus and sharp, structured greens that I wanted to learn more about Rodolfo Namias, the designer of the lens, and to see if I could find any images of his work. The information was scattered and hard to come by. It was also all in Italian, so I tried looking in a different direction, googling the “Aesculin” at the end of the name. I discovered that it was a compound found in horse chestnuts and dandelion tea, and that felt like the end of the road for my research.
Right after the presidential election last year, I posted a hand-colored image titled “Beeding Hearts” to Facebook that I shot with the lens 16 years before, with a preface that it was created with a soft focus Italian lens. To my surprise, a gentleman named Giusseppi Toffoli commented asking me if this happened to be a Namias lens, and indeed it was. Not only does Giuseppe have a wonderful eye, but he is an expert on Professor Rodolfo Namias. He explained to me that those sandwiched pieces of glass in the center contain the aesculin (extracted from the horse chestnut), which serves as a filter to block UV light from reaching the film, thereby preventing too much of a soft-focus effect. This is the reason my greens had such sharpness and clarity that I had noticed so many years earlier.
As it turns out, there is a group dedicated to the life and work of Rodolfo Namias and alternative photographic techniques. Gruppo Rodolfo Namias, in partnership with Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, will be presenting an exhibition of his lenses, technical writings, and images this spring. I just shipped off a print created with my Namias lens as an example of contemporary use. It will be displayed in the Salle Monumentali of the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana from April 21 to May 20, 2018. I wish I could be there myself but, as that’s not possible, I’m glad my work will be there instead. I encourage you to go if you’re in town - such an incredibly beautiful venue!