Behind the Lens of Sen. Leahy

Posted July 21, 2008 at 6:31pm

Senators are known for spending a lot of time in front of the camera, but Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) prefers to stand behind the lens.

A self-taught photographer, the senior Senator from Vermont owns more than a dozen cameras and has taken thousands of photos on the job. A collection of his work, titled “World Leaders,” will be feted in the Russell Rotunda this evening.

“A lifelong interest in photography was born the first time I picked up a camera. Photographs can at once be both timely and timeless,” Leahy said on a poster welcoming visitors to the exhibit. “They enhance our understanding beyond the ability of words alone.”

The exhibit, Leahy’s first, has been on display in several galleries in Vermont since 2006 before making its Washington debut this evening. The collection of some 30 photographs, most of which were shot with a Nikon camera on 35 mm film, features such notable personalities as the Dalai Lama, Fidel Castro and even Jerry Garcia.

“I put this one up because it’s personal,” Leahy says, pointing to a photo of the Grateful Dead performing. The picture was taken from the stage wing and shows a profile of the singer. “I used to sit onstage at the Grateful Dead concerts, by the sound guy. The last concert they played in Washington, the last song they played was my favorite, ‘Black Muddy River.’ I’m a big fan. I took them all to lunch in the Senate dining room once.”

Leahy, who always keeps a camera on hand, has one thing that many amateur photographers don’t have: access. On any given day he may cross paths with President Bush, Bono or Yo-Yo Ma — all of whom are featured in the exhibit.

Many of the photos on display document major historical events. There is one of Ronald Reagan with his hand on the Bible as his wife, Nancy, looks on at his second inauguration. U.S News and World Report sought the Senator out after the ceremony and asked to see the film he shot. The magazine eventually decided to publish the photo, which became a personal favorite of Reagan’s.

“He wrote on a copy that he gave me, ‘Pat, I can’t believe my favorite photograph is taken by a Democrat, Ron,’” Leahy says with a laugh.

Another photo in the exhibit, a shot of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Gen. John Shalikashvili sleeping on a cargo plane headed to Bosnia, was published in Time magazine. Profits from these photos as well as others were donated to the children’s wing of the Kellogg-Hubbard Library in Montpelier, Vt.

Of all the photos, Leahy says he favors those he took in Tibet during the 1980s. One in particular tells an emotional tale. It shows a man hugging his son from behind and holding a wallet-sized photo of the Dalai Lama. The man could have been arrested if he was found with a picture of the holy leader, Leahy says, but he still gestured for the Senator to take a photo. Leahy did so, and the result is one of his favorite photos in the collection.

“I kept on going and later one of my staff went back and talked to him and said, ‘Why would you risk prison? You’d never see that child again,’” Leahy says. “And he said, ‘They have to know.’ So my wife and I presented that to the Dalai Lama when he was in my office a few years later and the tears came down his face.”

Not all of the photographs are that serious. “This is Boris Yeltsin sitting in a chair and he’s drunk,” Leahy says pointing to a photo of the former Russian leader. The candid shot was not easy to take, Leahy says. Apparently Yeltsin had lunged out of his chair to greet Leahy and President Bill Clinton just before the Senator reached for his camera. “Clinton falls backwards, so I’m pushing him up and trying to swing around to take the picture,” Leahy says gesturing with his arms.

There is another of President George H.W. Bush holding a drink in his hand and wearing a Goofy hat. Leahy offered the president the negatives, realizing a silly photo of him may have caused some embarrassment, but Bush didn’t want them.

“He said, ‘Just don’t publish it until I’m out of office,’” Leahy says.

Though the Senator has photographed many famous faces over the years, he still gets star-struck on occasion. It happened once when the Catholic Senator encountered Pope John Paul II.

“I had my camera trying to take a picture, so he waved at me and I just waved,” the Senator says. “Then I realized I missed the picture.” The pope recognized that Leahy missed his shot and waved one more time so Leahy could snap the photo.

Having grown up in the back of his family’s printing shop, the Senator first gravitated toward photography as a child. Born nearly blind in one eye, Leahy was drawn to the hobby that only required one good eye. After observing the family business, Leahy says he learned the value of the printed word and photographs. This inspired him to get involved in the craft.

“I started taking pictures when I was a little kid, and I’ve kept a camera with me ever since,” he says.