Professional surf photographer Bernard Testemale began his career with analogue photography, honing his skills in the darkroom and working with large format Polaroid film, before adapting to digital photography as the industry changed.  But his focus on digital only lasted 10 years, as he became obsessed with the ‘wet plate’ (collodion humide en Français) technique in 2013, learning from master chemist Jacques Cousin, and diving into old books on the subject.  After a year of trial and error with this notoriously difficult and wholly artisanal process, his long experience with cameras began to shine through, and spectacular results followed.  He brought his wet plate équipe to Wheels&Waves Biarritz in 2014, and began shooting the motorcycle scene as well as his water world of surfers.  We covered his moto-photography exhibit from 2018 in our ‘Art of Ride’ article.

Racers Dimitri Coste and Frank Chatoukhine with one of their flat track Triumphs. [Bernard Testemale]
Bernard currently has on exhibit ‘The Roads Less Traveled’, at RAW Culture Art Gallery in Barrio Alto, Lisbon, Portugal.  Subtitled ‘From Haleiwa to Biarritz: A Visual Journey’ and curated by João Vilela Geraldo, the show documents Bernard’s travels across the globe to document surf and moto cultures.  Surf fanatics will no doubt recognize many of his subjects, as will anyone who follows the Wheels&Waves events in Biarritz.

Not for the faint of heart: wild boar hunting in Hawai’i with a bow and arrow. [Bernard Testemale]
The wet plate process has a peculiar effect on portraiture; as the medium is only sensitive to blue-spectrum light (UV), any pigmentation of skin damage from the sun will darken in the image.  It’s why 19th Century photographs of Native Americans make them look like their skin is leather; their skin is not actually shiny black, but the pigmentation in their skin blocks UV light, and appears darker in a wet plate.  Also, the process emphasizes skin damage, including wrinkles, which gives a face more character – a happy accident for men, and generally an unpleasant surprise when taking a wet plate portrait of women!   Some of these effects can be mitigated by using a flash in a portrait studio (the most common use of wet plate today), but natural light photographers like Bernard (and my own MotoTintype series) embrace the skin’s character highlighted by the process.  If it was good enough for Abraham Lincoln, it’s good enough for you.

Despite a 1-2 second exposure time, there’s still room for fun with a wet plate photo. What’s notable here is the detail in the photo (the silver molecules embedded in collodion are 1000x finer than in film media), and the slight solarization above the subject’s shoulder. This may be the first wet plate photo taken during a haircut! [Bernard Testemala]
Bernard generally shoots in an 8″x10″ format using a 19th Century portrait lens, which gives a beautiful ‘bokeh’ around the subject – a ring of swirly blur that lends a fascinating energy to the photo, and focusses the eye on the center of the image.  The wet plate technique uses a sticky collodion poured over a glass or metal plate that becomes ‘film’ when soaked in a light-sensitive silver nitrate solution.  The molecular grains in silver nitrate solution are 1000x finer than any film media, thus the level of detail in a well-focussed 8×10″ original photo is extraordinary.  Basically, they can be blown up to the size of a billboard without a loss of sharpness, which is why professional architectural photography remained faithful to glass negatives through the 1940s.

[RAW Culture]
From the Raw Culture press release: “Some call it the adventure of a lifetime.  The ability to see and experience the world with your own eyes, and at your own pace.  Your terms, your rules, the way you rock. But many people have walked that line, and many more have drawn those mountains and beaches, those dusty flats and those muddy roads.  Many will also talk about it, write about it, dream about it.  So it’s up to those who choose to show the roads less travelled to be extra careful about what they deliver and discover.  The doors they open into the daily routines and questions, the doubts and desires of those they meet along the way.

[RAW Culture]
Bernard Testemale brought his camera not to register, record, or to run things over.  It was his way of remembering. Thos he met, those he missed. Those he loved, those he learned to lose.  Those he listened to, and those who got loud.  That is the power of Photography.  Not to register, record, run over.  To remember.

[Bernard Testemale]
The race cars and those who build them from scrap pieces like puzzles.  Those who believe that engines are rine hearts that needs special care.  The artists of the speed tracks, the racers, the riots at the finishing line where red flags rule.  The winner and loser.  The oil which fees motors and motions.  The tools that twitch and turn, the screwdrivers that mend.  And also the ones who choose other ways to move.  By standing still first, and by sliding afterwards.

[RAW Culture]
The Surfer, riders of waves and of the wild.  Those who rise early to fee wet and frozen, most of the times fearless. Those looking to the swells and swirls, the foam of days.  Those who live in water and sand. Those who look up, not down.  These were the ones he met along the way.  Through peaks and potholes, through dunes and deserts, willow palm trees and late barbecues by twinkling lights.  The many moons watched from sleeping outside. The many hours spent going somewhere, somehow.  Some stories are made to be shared.  This is one of them.”

[Bernard Testemale]



Paul d’Orléans is the founder of He is an author, photographer, filmmaker, museum curator, event organizer, and public speaker. Check out his Author Page, Instagram, and Facebook.


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