–From the Roof of the World
Before he left for the monastery all
of his camera equipment was stolen.
Living off of the insurance money,
Nicholas Vreeland adopted the
spartan life of a monk. Until one
day someone loaned him a camera
and he began to explore his new
life from the inside out.
[ TIBET & INDIA ]
Have you ever been in an airport and seen a Buddhist monk? If they are from Thailand they will be dressed in orange, if they are Japanese they will be in black, and if they are Tibetan they will wear maroon and gold like the Dalai Lama. They carry a serenity that is as fascinating as the Himalayan Mountains they call home. For centuries pilgrims, explorers, and photographers have travelled to central Asia, drawn by the curious lives of Tibetan monks.
When they descend from the mountains and pass through our busy airports, they leave a trail of silence as they brush by our hurried lives. On Thursday night I had the opportunity to meet monk and photographer Nicholas Vreeland at the Leica Gallery (NYC). I was curious to know which came into his life first photography or Buddhism? Photography has been a part of his life since he was thirteen years old. His formative years were spent in the studios Irving Penn and Richard Avedon. Prior to taking his monastic vows Nicholas was working as a photographer in New York City. Shortly before leaving for Tibet and India for an extended stay, his photography equipment was stolen. He explained that the insurance money was used to finance his trip and he had no intentions of taking pictures at the monasteries.
Nicholas commented, “The Tibetan practice Buddhism suited him just fine.” He was not missing his cameras. The days were spent in silent meditation, chanting, and studying the sutras (sacred texts). We agreed that there are steps in life where the camera is left aside. Without the impulse to take pictures, he was free to dive into a spiritual life. Eventually, someone passed through the monastery and loaned him a camera. The exhibition at the Leica Gallery shows the next twenty four years of his life from 1979 through 2003.
Van Gogh’s Bedroom
[SACRED TEXTS & FRIENDS]
In a small room with a single bed, wicker chair, and nightstand Vincent Van Gogh gave us a hallucinated vision of an artists life. Distorted as it may be, the humble pieces of his bedroom in Arles (France) are a composite view of his life. A story begins to emerge as we piece together the details revealed in the painting. People have always wanted to see inside the mind and walls of an artist’s life. The accidental appearance of a camera for Nicholas opened a window of opportunity. He decided to examine the pieces of the monastery which he encountered everyday. For a period of time he even made portraits of everyone who came to his room. There was no preconceived project he wished to describe. Instead, his only goal was to. “shoot the things around him.” The by product of this experiment is a sweeping view into the daily happenings of a monastic life in Tibet and India.
“If the photographer is to have a chance of achieving a
true reflection of a person’s world-which is as much
outside him as inside him-it is necessary that the subject
of the portrait should be in a situation normal to him.”
Impossible To Replicate
[ RINPOCHE & HIS REINCARNATE]
The room Nicholas and I were standing in, had a collection of large prints he made using a 5″ x 7″ large format camera. The most recognizable image on the wall was of the Dalai Lama. But directly behind me was a Rinpoche, the Tibetan word for teacher, who looked to be in his eighties. Nicholas took the picture in 1979 a few months before the monk passed away. The Tibetans believe in reincarnation and often find the soul of a deceased monk in a young child. This may seem like a fantastical practice, but if it is unfamiliar to you there was a film called the “Unmistakable Child” which explores the search and location of a reincarnated soul. It is well worth watching.
In 1988 a child was found to be the reincarnated soul of the Rinpoche Nicholas photographed nearly a decade prior. On the wall, next to this enormous portrait hangs a 35mm color image of a small boy. He sits in the same position as the Rinpoche and the two clearly reference each other. It is suiting that the venerable monk was photographed with the large format camera and printed very large, while the young boy, still to small to fit in the Tibetan robes was photographed with a 35mm camera.
The charming contrast emphasizes the differences between the two beings who share the same spirit. While Nicholas was explaining this story he did something that photographers rarely do. He admitted the effort to re-create a photo is impossible. It was an endearing admission, one that was unprovoked. Honesty is greatly appreciated. He went on to explain how even though it was the same setting, the pictures, which are separated by nine years, have a different feeling. Series and progressions are often in the same formats, but I found the shift in format, print size, and age to emphasize the cyclical nature of reincarnation. Things grow up, they die, and the grow again.
Nicholas and I carried on chatting while a film crew was coming in for close ups. They were in the process of making a documentary on Nicholas and his travels. Hopefully they explore the intersection of meditation and photography. While the two may not always sit in the same room, the life of a monk and that of the photographer have striking similarities. In both cases, the ability to look at the world with a compassionate eye can reveal an alternate reality bubbling just below the surface. By combining the eye of a photographer with the heart of a monk, Nicholas’ work invites us to a spiritual realm through the simple objects that adorn his life.
To see more of Nicholas Vreeland’s work check out his site below:
And I would like to give a special thanks to Elizabeth Avedon for curating the show. You can follow her projects on her blog below:
The exhibition is on view at the Leica Gallery (New York City) until June 4th, 2011.
Nicholas’ color images are only on view at the Leica Gallery, they are not online, so get down to the gallery and check them out.