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Ellicott City photographer brings nature to life

With its triangular, armored head, bulging eyes and serrated forearms, the predator attacking its prey is a menacing sight.

The Transformer-like creature on the computer screen in George Grall's home office is actually a Carolina mantis chowing down on a red-legged grasshopper. And the larger-than-life shot shows what the Ellicott City photographer does best: capture the inner workings of nature up close.

Grall, a freelance photographer for National Geographic magazine for 23 years and staff photographer for the National Aquarium in Baltimore since 1984, will give a presentation Friday, Nov. 16, at the Howard County Conservancy on one of his favorite subjects: the reawakening of amphibians in vernal pools.

"The main thing is to educate people into appreciating nature," the Illinois native said of his work. "I try to approach [my photography] from a different angle they never saw before."

Vernal pools are temporary bodies of water that serve as homes to various plants and animals. They can be found all over the world but are especially diverse in the Mid-Atlantic, Grall said. To get shots in these shallow aquatic environments, he lies on an inflatable raft in the muck with his camera poised at or below the water's surface.

When asked whether there's any glamour in being a nature photographer, Grall laughed loudly.

"This is a lot of hard work," he said. "The [creatures] are where you find them, but not necessarily where you found them" previously, he said of constant changes in animals' habits and habitats.

"You have to know when your subject is active, and you'll find them best when they're out feeding."

Grall, who is 60 and grew up in Baltimore, is accompanied by his wife, Kathy, on many local outings and global excursions. She also contributes her skills as a graphic designer to assembling her husband's slides for presentations. The process, which she likens to creating a storyboard, can take as long as three months.

By popular demand, the couple is returning to the conservancy for the fifth consecutive year and will show 153 of Grall's photos in a 90-minute presentation.

"George has that keen eye, and he's able to track down creatures you'd never expect to see," said Meg Boyd, executive director of the nonprofit conservancy located on 232 acres in Woodstock. "He knows how to be there at the right time to get the right shots."

The first program attracted an audience of 80, Kathy Grall said, but last year, 225 people showed up and seating was difficult to come by. Registration is recommended, Boyd said.

While the educational program is open to all, many in the audience are camera buffs who follow Grall's work, she noted.

Grall first became involved in the world of creatures at age 3 when he pulled a dead 3-foot fox snake out of a gutter and dragged it home. His mother, who often rescued stranded turtles she found on the road, understood his curiosity and allowed him to keep it and other dead snakes — outside.

That was the beginning of a lifelong obsession. By kindergarten, he was feeding ground beef on a toothpick to a 12-inch tiger salamander, and he's had hundreds of pet snakes over the years, he said.

By age 16, Grall and a buddy took turns using the friend's Brownie camera to take pictures of each other holding snakes. He saved money from odd jobs like cutting grass and working in a seafood store to buy "a good camera" a year later.

"I've always known that I wanted to do this," said the self-taught photographer, who prefers Canon cameras. "When I first compared my photos to those I saw in books, I thought, 'I can do as good.' "

After a couple of semesters of college, he quit and began painting houses, putting up drywall and doing other home improvement work to finance his hobby and build a portfolio. His big break came in 1971, when the director of an amphibian and reptile venom laboratory where he was employed showed his photos to a friend at the National Geographic Society in Washington.

Grall had pitched a photo spread and article on the life cycle of the hellbender, a 3-foot giant salamander he had documented in Garrett County. His proposal made it to the magazine's planning committee, without the accompanying photos, but was ultimately voted down.

One of the magazine editors later called and said she wanted to see the photos anyway. Though the photos didn't appear in print, they earned him freelance work, and he has traveled on regular assignments for the magazine since 1990. His work has also appeared in Newsweek and Life, as well as publications of the Smithsonian Institution and the National Audubon Society, among others.

Grall's work has taken the couple to Mexico, Costa Rica, the Caribbean island of Bonaire, and Australia, among other locales.

"There are so many species in Costa Rica," he said, noting he's still working to identify 20 insects he captured on film. "The diversity there is incredible."

But he is equally likely to be found shooting at such locales around the state as the Eastern Shore, where he recently planned to photograph snapping turtles. He had paid a consultant to help him time the animals' breeding season but still missed out.

"When it goes wrong, you usually have to wait until the following year" to get the photos, he said, chalking it up as one of the hazards of the profession.

The vernal pools are important because they provide breeding grounds for many life forms, he said.

"They are a barometer for the human condition," he said. "When pools decline, it's due to air and water pollution" and is a direct reflection of our stewardship of the planet.

Grall also regularly traipses the grounds of the conservancy, finding creatures to photograph in the various environments there.

"The wide variety of habitats here is incredible," Boyd said. "George took a shot of two black snakes mating high up in a tree on our property that many people probably walked beneath without noticing. If you're not constantly looking around at nature, then you're missing something."

The conservancy has four miles of trails and is open daily from dawn to dusk, she added.

Grall said he still pals around with his childhood friends, and they still go snake hunting to see who can locate the largest and then take photos of each other holding their finds.

"You don't have to travel far or own a $50 billion camera to get good shots," he said.

If you go

What: Return of the Spring Pools: The Amphibian Awakening and More

When: Friday, Nov. 16, 7 p.m.

Where: Howard County Conservancy, 10520 Old Frederick Road, Woodstock

Tickets: $10 for adults, in advance; $12 after Nov. 15; kids under 8 are free.

Information and online registration:

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