COLCHESTER, Vt. (AP) – Photography generally isn’t allowed inside the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet – unless you’re a United States senator and friend of the Dalai Lama.

“His Holiness has become a friend of Marcelle’s and mine,” Sen. Patrick Leahy said, referring to his wife. “We see him often. On my first trip to Tibet, I was allowed to take pictures in the Potala, where nobody else was allowed to do it.”

“In fact the Chinese security started to take out their cameras and were told, You can’t take pictures.’ They said, But he is.’ “No he’s not,’ came the reply. It’s sort of a Buddhist thing, I think,” Leahy said.

The story drew a laugh from a crowd of about 80 who packed a gallery at St. Michael’s College recently for the unveiling of a Senate career’s worth of photos of luminaries, including presidents, foreign heads of state and rock stars.

Photographers in the crowd said the Vermont Democrat had a good eye for composition, a good sense of timing to catch the right moment, and the sort of access most news photographers can only dream of. “I think he has done an exceptional job,” said Clyde Smith, a longtime photographer for Vermont Life magazine.

Shannon Perich, associate curator of historical photography at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, said the historical record created by Leahy was “invaluable.”

“We often have writings by senators, but most of the time we don’t think of them thinking visually, as well,” Perich said.

Heather Moore, photo historian in the Senate Historical Office, said former Sens. Howard Baker and Barry Goldwater both were avid photographers. She said Goldwater specialized in Arizona and other southwestern landscapes.

“For someone like that who is on the inside and who is able to document the history of world events, it’s a really unique perspective,” Moore said.

“Many of these are images that only he could have taken, from meeting individually with world leaders or being behind the scenes. It’s a perspective that only he could have ever had. That’s immensely valuable for the historical record.”

One thing Leahy’s photography illustrates is the art of the unusual angle. In the standard bill-signing photo, the president faces the photographers and signs a document that even someone with a powerful magnifying glass would have to read upside down.

Leahy, first elected in 1974, has had ample opportunities to join the group of senators and representatives standing behind the president at such ceremonies. The collection on display at the McCarthy Arts Center at St. Michael’s has bill-signing shots from over the shoulders of Presidents Reagan, Clinton and George W. Bush.

The unusual access has enabled Leahy to catch powerful people in candid moments. Leahy was among a group of senators invited to the White House by the elder President Bush for drinks one evening. The ensuing frivolity resulted in a Leahy photo of the president wearing a Mickey Mouse hat.

Leahy’s photographic skills have resulted in some impressive stringer credits. A shot he took at Reagan’s second inaugural was spread across two pages in U.S. News & World Report.

The way Leahy tells it, his career as an intrepid amateur photographer also has included moments of international intrigue. He said he was “the last American to see (Soviet Premier) Yuri Andropov alive.

“We knew he was sick,” Leahy said. “We were meeting on an extraordinarily hot day in Moscow. He had a heavy wool suit on in an un-air-conditioned room and I thought I could see something sticking out from under his sleeve.”

Leahy took a normal picture and then aimed at the cuff and got off a quick shot before Andropov “yanked the sleeve down.” After Leahy returned home with the film, U.S. intelligence officials enlarged the shot and “you could see his shunt, for kidney dialysis.” When Andropov died a few weeks later, American officials knew why, he said.

Perich said Leahy’s photography of people across the political spectrum demonstrated that “he’s able to transcend politics to recognize the significance of what he’s doing.”

She said photography also can be helpful in bridging divisions between people. “Photography often becomes a jumping-off point for story telling,” Perich said. “Generally you can put people at ease. You’re able to tell stories and convey ideas in a way that’s different from sitting next to someone and talking.”

Even a small gesture can be a marker of historic events – China’s domination of Tibet, for instance. One of the photographs on display shows a Tibetan man with a weathered face standing by the side of a road, holding a child and a small picture of the Dalai Lama.

“At that time you would have been arrested and thrown in jail for having a picture of the Dalai Lama,” Leahy said. “He was making it very clear that he had something he wanted to show me, but wanted us to block out the security person following us. He pulled out that picture,” and Leahy snapped away.

The senator and his wife later gave a copy of the photo to the Dalai Lama.

“When we showed him that,” Leahy said, “we both remember seeing the tears well up in his eyes.”

The exhibit of Leahy’s photos remains on display through Tuesday at the McCarthy Arts Center at St. Michael’s College in Colchester.