One Man's Motorcycle Quest After Native Plants


An image from Joshua Marowitz's first salt printing project.

Joshua Marowitz hasn't slept in his own bed in two months. He's been on the road, cruising cross country on a jam-packed motorcycle, ending each day at a friend's or a stranger's house, or maybe a campsite. For more than 9,000 miles, he's been exposed to heat, rain, and monotony, but also extraordinary beauty—all because of plants. A fine art photographer, Marowitz is on a quest to document various native botanical species across the U.S. using a historical photographic technique called salt printing.

His adventure has roots in Philadelphia. A few years ago, Marowitz, who co-founded The Light Room (a non-profit gallery and photography studio), moved to a home near Fairmount Park, the largest urban landscaped park in the U.S. At the time, he was also getting interested in urban agriculture and community gardening. "I slowly realized that I didn't know a whole lot about what was native to the area," he says, so he decided to learn more by photographing Pennsylvania's indigenous plants. For his medium, he chose salt printing, a process developed in the 1830s that entails capturing an image on a sheet of paper coated with a mixture of salt and silver nitrate. Unlike black and white photography, salt printing "encompasses far more detail and three dimensionality," says Marowitz. "It's more lush, it has more tonal range." The resulting image is a dreamy dance between light and shadow.

Marowitz is thanking certain donors to his Kickstarter campaign with cyanotypes created during his trip, like the one above.

Marowitz exhibited his work and received good feedback. Around that time, he also enrolled in a Master Naturalist course, which emphasized the importance of native plants to biodiversity. That only fueled his growing botanical interests, and he decided to turn his local project into a national one, launching a Kickstarter campaign to help fund it. In August, Marowitz set out on a two-month motocycle journey to collect samples, scans, and photographs of native plants from different ecoregions across the U.S., from the east coast's temperate forests to California's Mediterranean climes. Along the way, he visited state parks, native plant nurseries, and botanical gardens to learn more about the species he was searching for, consulting with experts when possible. The Audubon Guide to Wildflowers of North America also helped him in identification.

With the trip now wrapping up, Marowitz recently reflected on the joy of getting out of the city, experiencing new terrain, and, of course, learning about native plants. He particularly loved one species known as salal, a perennial shrub found on the Pacific coast that sprouts purple berries. “It’s a very, very beautiful plant,” he says. 

Marowitz on his motorcycle.

Upon his return, Marowitz will start the arduous process of confirming the plant specimen IDs. Then he'll get to work making salt prints, with the goal of exhibiting his work and creating bound collections of selected images.

Marowitz doesn't consider himself a native plant proselytizer, per se. Rather, he wants his art to spark further inquiry. Should someone show interest in a piece, says Marowitz, "it is my hope that you would want to learn a little more about what it is."

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