It is not unusual for a photographer to strive for transcendent images and so reach beyond the mere recording of the world before their camera. It is far rarer to find a spiritual devotee whose practice leads them to refine their photographic art. In what ways could the realms of photography and spirituality entwine and mutually nourish? And how can a faith built on the idea of impermanence embrace an art that freezes time? There are answers to be found in the story of Nicholas Vreeland.
One might expect that the grandson of fashion doyenne (and long-time Vogue editor) Diana Vreeland would be compelled to live a life of lavish milieux and conspicuous, connected coolness. And for a while, after growing up in Germany and Morocco, Nicholas Vreeland did so, as a stylishly dressed bon vivant favored with insider introductions to Irving Penn and Richard Avedon — with whom he apprenticed as a teenager. The last thing one would imagine is that Vreeland would eventually become the abbot of a Tibetan monastery in a protected refugee zone of India. The transformation from “committed dandy” to devoted ascetic would be interesting enough, but along the way Vreeland blossomed into a first-rate photographer. He has shot all over South America and Asia, but his chronicling of his monastic life in Karnataka, in large-format black-and-white, is arguably his finest work.
Vreeland comes from the hyper-visual culture industry of New York, but his earliest affection for photography grew out of his loneliness while at an all-boys boarding school in Massachusetts. It was there that he shot a portrait of the headmaster, at his wife’s request, and the resulting stark image ended up on T-shirts worn by the entire graduating class, including the headmaster himself. After traveling in India, Nepal, and Tibet (inspired by, of all things, Tintin in Tibet, but also while visiting his diplomat father in Sikkim), Vreeland became interested in Buddhism and shaved his head (much to the dismay of his famously soignée grandma). “It was a series of little steps that just went deeper and deeper, and continue,” says Vreeland when asked about his detour onto a spiritual path. He became a disciple of Khyongla Rinpoche, attracted by his teachings about the importance of diminishing “self-cherishing” and negativity, and developing compassion for others. Three years later, he became a full-fledged monk and the only Westerner in a settlement of 20,000. Faced with the rigors of a devout life, he gave up photography for a while, until Martine Franck, the widow of Cartier-Bresson, visited his monastery and persuaded him to embrace it anew.
Reconciling Vreeland’s background and current life, one might believe, finds a continual focus in his photography. Although I was curious about his spiritual path in general, I attempted to steer our conversation toward how his practice impacts his art. In fact, Vreeland insists that he is not an artist at all, just a busy monk who happens to find pleasure in taking pictures, and honor in photographing the Dalai Lama on several occasions. (It was the Dalai Lama who appointed him abbot.) Almost sheepishly, dutifully keeping pride at bay, he admits that it was only by selling his photographs to collectors that the planned expansion of the monastery (to house an enormous wave of refugee Tibetan monks) was made possible. Vreeland understands and employs the power of art without seeking any of its ego luster. When filmmakers Guido Santi and Tina Mascara asked to make him the subject of a documentary, he declined until his master told him it would benefit others.
Regarding his work for Penn, Vreeland says, “Very much like a spiritual master, it’s not that you necessarily know what they’re teaching you.” His tasks were mundane, in the service of helping Penn execute his shots, but through the subliminal growth of master-disciple osmosis, Vreeland became himself a serious photographer before the age of 20. “I think there is a freedom when one is young that you can never quite retrieve. When you get older you develop more technical proficiency, but in terms of freedom of spirit, that diminishes. The energy that enabled me to travel around the world with my 5×7 camera, shooting in color, doing a series of portraits of lamas, afforded a wonderful experience that I’m not sure I could do today. Now I’m doing this very steady controlled work in this little studio that I’ve created.”
Some 30 years as a practicing Buddhist have purged Vreeland of anything his erstwhile New York crowd might once have recognized as ambition. “I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to photograph within worlds that people haven’t seen and I’m happy to share those, but I think it would be very pretentious to think that my pictures had any real importance in the long run.” But something more valuable may have been gained instead, not least a power of calm and focused perception that only a fellow photographer might covet. “I don’t think that photography helps me see, I think that the seeing comes first.”
For a fuller and richer account of Nicholas Vreeland’s story, we recommend you see the excellent documentary Monk With a Camera (http://monkwithacameradoc.com), directed by Guido Santi and Tina Mascara, currently on view at the Laemmle Royal Theater in Santa Monica through December 21. It opens in San Francisco on December 26, followed by other US cities.
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