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Staff photo by REID SILVERMANFrank Greenwell sits in front of examples of his nature photography at the Greenwells' home in Leonardtown this week. Greenwell will be one of approximately 40 artists participating in this weekend's Unique Boutique at the Hollywood Volunteer Fire Department social hall.
It would be hard to imagine a better first career for someone who is now a nature photographer.
Frank Greenwell of Leonardtown worked as taxidermist and conservator with the Smithsonian Institution from 1957 to 1999. It was an Indiana-Jones kind of job that included work on the iconic African elephant on display in the U.S. National Museum of Natural History rotunda and the museum's world-record Bengal tiger, as well as multiple other in-house projects. In addition, he traveled to remote areas around the world – including Panama, Australia, Nepal — for the Smithsonian on scientific expeditions and to other locales for presentations.
He climbed the mountains of Southern Island, New Zealand, in search of Chamois, Tahr and Red Deer and traveled to tropical forests of the Dominion Republic near the Haitian border in search of mammals and birds. While in the Dominican Republic, he discovered a large robin previously unknown to science that has since been described as a new species. And in 1966 a previously unknown bat fly that he collected in the jungles of Panama in 1963 was named for him – the Pesudostrebla greenwelli.
Through all of this, Greenwell had a camera in his hand.
"It was part of the job," he said from his Leonardtown home Monday morning.
He needed to document the findings on those scientific expeditions. And when that was done, he just kept taking photos.
His wife, Pat, who manages his photography collection, estimates that they have kept approximately 17,000 slides that he took from the 1960s to 2003 and more than 100,000 digital photos from 2003 to now.
"He's been a busy little guy," she said.
Pat said that both his career with the Smithsonian and his second career as a photographer were undertaken with a great deal of passion on her husband's part.
"It was from the heart," she said.
Frank stood before a selection of just a few of his photos – an ethereal snow scene from Oberammergau in Germany, a close-up detail of a young eagle in which every feather is distinct and clear, a family of swans that he followed during a whole season of raising the cygnets, a vivid iris, a landscape taken in Leonardtown that captured such a variety of colors that it looked like a painting, a box turtle that is so detailed that each speck of dirt at the turtle's feet is delineated – and told the stories that went along with each.
His goal in photography is to encourage people to "take the time to smell the flowers," he said. "I want people to appreciate it …"
"And preserve it," Pat added.
"That's right," Frank said.
He believes if people can see his close-up views of the world, both those nearby and from exotic locations, they will be more interested in conserving that world.
A native of Leonardtown – he graduated from St. Mary's Academy in 1955 – he remembers that he loved hearing the calls of the bob-whites in St. Mary's County. He said he doesn't hear them anymore.
He and Pat relocated to Leonardtown from Arlington, Va., after she retired from her job a couple of years ago. Now, he takes photos and she helps manage his work.
His work has been exhibited in galleries and in the rotunda of the National Museum of Natural History. His photographs have appeared in books and journals.
This weekend, area residents will have a chance to get a close-up view of Frank's photography when he participates in the 35th annual Unique Boutique fine arts and crafts show at the Hollywood Volunteer Fire Department social hall. It is one of only two local shows in which he participates.
"I think they're a good organization," Frank said of the artists who run the annual show.
Pat noted that the high quality of what is on display at Unique Boutique is a draw for them. "You don't want to put your work just anywhere. We prefer juried shows," she said.
The couple also likes the Unique Boutique's practice of collecting donated pieces from each participating artist to sell at the hospice table, where all the proceeds will benefit Hospice of St. Mary's. "I think it's a wonderful organization," Pat said of hospice, explaining that a family member of theirs had benefited from hospice.
More than 40 members will participate along with Greenwell in this year's Unique Boutique this weekend, said Monica Richards, a Unique Boutique member.
Until then, Greenwell will probably be busy taking photos of the spider he's been watching on his front porch or the Canada geese resting in a field or that water lily in the swamp. "I've taken [my photos] for the most part for my own personal satisfaction," he said.
"It's fun to start out and just explore on your own," he said.
For the kind of nature photography he likes, Frank said the key is a lot of time and patience "… and experimentation," he added. "You have to be willing to go out on a limb."
This makes Pat laugh and she tells the story of him climbing out on a limb over the swirling waters of the Pacific Ocean to get some shot he just had to have. She's allowed bats and other creatures to live in their home – all for Frank's photography. "She's been very tolerant of that," he said. "We've been married almost 50 years now."
"I wouldn't trade it," she said … It's been great. We've had a lot of fun together."