The wet plate/collodion photographic process was invented in 1850 by Frederick Scott Archer, only 11 years after the first fixed photographs were publicized using the Daguerreotype (Nicephore Niépce – who also invented the internal combustion engine) and Calotype (Henry Fox Talbot) methods.  While these pioneering and technically difficult methods continue to be used by artists and enthusiasts today, the wet plate process proved far easier to master with more reliable results, and became the photographic standard for half a century.   For astronomical photography, wet plate or ‘dry plate’ glass negatives continued to be used deep into the 20th Century, as the silver particles suspended in collodion or liquid gelatin are 1000x finer than is possible with ‘film’.  As a medium for artists, the wet plate technique was lost in the latter half of the 20th Century, until a few DIY die-hards dug into old books, ordered the basic chemistry (collodion, ether, grain alcohol, iodine and bromine salts, silver nitrate crystals, sodium hyposulfate, ferric nitrate, acetic acid, etc.), and re-learned what every photographer in the 19th Century knew by heart.  Hats off to them.

Wet plate photography has been a peculiar fascination of mine since I saw an exhibit of 200 original ‘Nadar’ portraits in France, back in 2010.   The Jeu de Paume photography museum had recently taken over the Château de Tours, and its walls were covered by 8×10″ albumen prints of the most interesting characters in Bohemian France in the second half of the 1800s. These included writer Victor Hugo (Lés Miserables), actress Sarah Bernhardt, composer Franz Liszt, painter Gustave Courbet, writer Alexandre Dumas (Three Musketeers, Count of Monte Christo, etc), poet Charles Baudelaire, anarchists Mikhail Bakunin and Piotr Kropotkin, futurist Jules Verne (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, etc), sculptor Auguste Rodin, writer/feminist George Sand, explorer Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza (whom I wrote about here)…basically anyone who was scandalous and brilliant in Paris from 1854-1910, when a Nadar studio portrait was simply necessary.

Bernard Testemale shot this portrait at the Art Ride exhibit in Biarritz in 2014, on a ‘borrowed’ BMW WR750. [Bernard Testemale]
At the time of the exhibit, I had just begun dating Suzie Heartbreak, who had been studying the wet plate/collodion process for a couple of years.  Our shared interest the medium led to our MotoTintype collaboration, commenced in earnest while using our Sprinter van as a mobile darkroom and backup vehicle in the 2012 Motorcycle Cannonball.  Our results were mixed, technically; we had a lot to learn about shooting outdoors using natural light, in constantly varying temperature, humidity, elevation, time of day, and cloud cover.  Shooting portraits or landscapes outdoors is an art in itself, and we’ve improved a lot since 2012.

A portrait of Paul Simonon, bassist for The Clash, relaxing at the Art Ride exhibit in 2015. (Read my Cycle World profile of Paul here) [Bernard Testemale]
Today, there are many hundreds of photographers using wet plate as their primary photo medium (barring their iphones – to share their results), most of whom take studio portraits indoors, using a flash system.  You’ve seen them; they make great souvenirs.  It’s far more difficult to create a successful body of work shot entirely outdoors; these number perhaps in the dozens.  I’m always excited to meet another caminando on the difficult path, especially one whose work I respect.

Jeff Decker’s amazing custom Crocker. [Bernard Testemale]
I met Bernard Testemale at the Art Ride exhibit during the 2014 Wheels & Waves event in Biarritz, France.  Suzie and I were exhibiting our photos, and Bernard was taking portraits and motorcycle shots at the event.  The portrait he took of me is below, sitting on the genuine 1930 World Land Speed Record BMW WR750…yep, priceless.  We’ve kept in touch, and when Bernard asked me to write an Introduction for a book collecting his wet plates of old vehicles and their owners, I happily supplied my thoughts.  The book (Art of Ride) is a meditation on character, the notion of obsolescence, and the connection between folks who love old cars and motorcycles, and folks who take wet plate photos.  They are basically the same people, really; eccentrics devoted to difficult, old, wonderful things.

Musician, surfer, hot rodder Brian Bent at one of his ‘hot rod garage sales’. [Bernard Testemale]
Below is Bernard’s essay exploring why he compiled these photos into a book called Art of Ride, and what it’s all about.  He’s currently raising funds to publish a hardcover edition, and you can help by supporting his Ulule crowdfunding page here.

From Bernard Testemale:

Art of Ride is the culmination of 10 years of photographic work: a voyage along the paths traced by pioneers of the artistic expression of wet plate photography, such as Gustave le Gray and Felix Tournachon, known as ‘Nadar’.

In the world of photography, as in that of antique vehicles, some are vintage and others are modern. For years I have been fascinated by 19th-century photographic techniques, and I use the original wet collodion process: a technique that has enabled me to produce extremely fine images. These black-and-white shots, with their infinite nuances, provoke an immediate flashback to the past, releasing an emotional charge that is as unique as it is unpredictable.

Boys with exquisite toys: a c.1928 Bugatti Type 35. [Bernard Testemale]
This collection is entirely produced using this complex photographic technique. My pictures are produced on metal plates (tintypes) or glass plates (ambrotypes), creating a timeless piece of great intensity with an engine or a character as the subject.  It is a challenge that has become a passion – the work is at the crossroads between painting, sculpture and photography. Each photograph requires time and patience on the part of both photographer and model. From these hours of painstaking work, the photographer has no guarantee of success. Imperfections and the sometimes unpredictable results of collodion plates are part of the charm of these unique works of art.

A surfer with an impressive quiver, and a cool Cadillac to carry them. [Bernard Testemale]
In this project, each photographic plate tells a story, and is meant to be shared. This is the power of photography. Not just to record, but to remember the people we’ve met, the people we’ve loved, the moments we’ve shared. I love cars and motorcycles with character, and those who build them from individual parts like jigsaw puzzles are truly works of art. Beyond the logistical challenge, the diverse body of work I’ve created using this primary technique underlines the intangible link between my subjects and the ephemeral nature of the moment.”

Support Bernard Testemale’s Art of Ride here.



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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