Patrick Leahy retired from the US Senate in 2023, having served there for 48 years. Such longevity isn’t the only thing senatorially unusual about Leahy. The Vermont Democrat is a Deadhead. He’s had bit parts in four Batman movies — five, if “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” counts, but let’s not get carried away.
Leahy, 83, is also a passionate photographer. An exhibition of his work, “The Eye of Senator Patrick Leahy,” runs at the Vermont Supreme Court Gallery Feb. 1-March 29.
There are a surprisingly large number of famous people who are also camera enthusiasts. One reason is that their fame can give them access denied most photographers. As the Hall of Fame pitcher Randy Johnson says on his website, rj51photos.com, “Thanks to the people I got to meet during my baseball career, I’ve been fortunate to have unique opportunities in photography.”
Another is the opportunity it gives a celebrity to change the fame equation.
In 1955, President Dwight Eisenhower was posing for photographs outside his farm, in Gettysburg, Pa. Picking up an early Polaroid Land Camera, he said, “Now, let me reverse the tables and take your picture.” The resulting image is like looking at a firing squad. One can imagine the satisfaction Ike took in being the one behind a camera instead of at the receiving end.
A much larger and higher-profile photography exhibition than Leahy’s opens at the Brooklyn Museum in May: “Paul McCartney Photographs 1963–64: Eyes of the Storm.” Other musician photographers include Frank Sinatra, who shot the first Ali-Frazier prizefight for Life magazine; Lenny Kravitz, who’s exhibited his work at Art Basel; former Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman; Graham Nash; Patti Smith (“Each photograph is like a diary entry in my life”); and Michael Stipe, who published a book of photographs of a 1995 Patti Smith tour.
Probably the most talented non-photographer photographer is the actor and film director Dennis Hopper. Between 1961 and 1967, Hopper took some 10,000 photographs. The best are collected in his book “Out of the Sixties” (1986). Hopper’s “Double Standard” (1961) may be the best Lee Friedlander picture Friedlander never took. The comparison flatters both men.
Hopper, who died in 2010, is far from the only actor photographer. Both Jessica Lange and Candice Bergen have had exhibitions at the George Eastman Museum, in Rochester, N.Y. Bergen, in a nice bit of typecasting, played the photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White in “Gandhi” (1982).
Jeff Bridges has published two books of his photographs and devotes a significant chunk of his website, jeffbridges.com, to his photography. Other stars who’ve published books of their photography include Viggo Mortensen, Diane Keaton, and the late Gina Lollobridgida (no fewer than five).
Bridges’s camera of choice is a a Widelux F8. Sammy Davis Jr. believed in having more photographic options. At one time he owned a Contax, two Rolleiflexes, a Hasselblad, a pair of Nikons, a Canon, a Leica, a Polaroid, and a Praktica. Davis also believed that a performer has an advantage as a photographer. “I can anticipate the climax of a person’s activities, can shoot at just the right moment to capture the high point.”
There have been famous authors who were photographers: August Strindberg, George Bernard Shaw, Jack London (between 1906 and 1916 he took more than 12,000 photographs), Allen Ginsberg, Orhan Pamuk. Wright Morris owed his fame to his writing, but it’s fair to say he was a better photographer than novelist.
Not that writing and photography are unrelated. As with performing, there can be a connection between the two or the provision of a means of emotional entry. Before she became known for her short stories, Eudora Welty worked as a photographer for the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression. “The camera was a hand-held auxiliary of wanting-to-know,” she writes in her memoir “One Writer’s Beginnings” (1984). “Making pictures of people in all sorts of situations, I learned that every feeling waits upon its gesture; and I had to be prepared to recognize this moment when I saw it. These were things a story writer needed to know.”
Patrick Leahy’s beginnings as a photographer came early: taking pictures with cameras belonging to his mother. “There was such a sense of adventure in putting a camera up to my eye and framing the view around me,” he writes in his 2022 memoir, “The Road Taken.” His parents later bought him a Brownie and then a Hopalong Cassidy box camera. Leahy’s first “professional” camera was a Zeiss Ikon Contaflex B, which he bought the summer before college.
A quarter century later, US News and World Report asked Leahy to photograph Ronald Reagan’s inauguration. Two of his pictures led the newsweekly’s coverage. Signing a print of one, Reagan said to him, “What are the odds that my favorite photo was taken by a Democrat?”
Trying to get then-Governor Bill Clinton to make a campaign appearance in Burlington in 1992, Leahy pitched his argument in visual terms. “Come up to Vermont in the afternoon. We’ll get a big crowd on the water, right on Perkins Pier. It’s a beautiful photo.”
In 1999, Leahy’s reputation preceded him as he walked in the funeral procession for Jordan’s King Hussein. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak called out to Clinton and Gerald Ford, “Bill, Gerry! Pat wants to take your picture!” It was more a case of Mubarak wanting to have his photo taken with the former presidents. Either way, Leahy obliged.
THE EYE OF SENATOR PATRICK LEAHY
At Vermont Supreme Court Gallery, 111 State St., Montpelier, Vt., through March 29. 802-828-0749, curator.vermont.gov/vermont-supreme-court-gallery
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.