Nicholas Vreeland, grandson of the influential fashion editor Diana Vreeland, was born in Geneva Switzerland. However, his father being a diplomat, he also spent time in Germany, Morocco, France, Italy, and America. He can speak Tibetan, Italian, French, Spanish, English, German and Hindi fluently. He became interested in photography at very early age. At the age of thirteen, he was sent to boarding school. It is there that he discovered a few cameras and two dark rooms, but no one to teach. As a young photographer, Nicholas began photography with an old Leica III and a little Gossen light meter. When asked about photography, he said, “I can’t really say what attracted me to photography, but it was immediately the thing that brought me the most joy. My parents gave me Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “The Decisive Moment” which had a tremendous impact on me”. He was happiest in the dark room and learned to print by trial and error.
In 1971, Vreeland moved to Paris, and spent two years enjoying his stay and appreciating the beauty of the city. He simultaneously continued assisting the famous portraiture and fashion photographer Irving Penn during the summer vacations. Later, he worked with Richard Avedon as well. However, he went back to New York to study film at New York University. After completing his education, he started working as a professional photographer.
In 1972 he first came to India to visit his godfather, Ambassador Shankar Bajpai, who was political officer in Sikkim. He traveled throughout Sikkim and also visited Bhutan and Nepal. That is how he got introduced to the Tibetan Buddhist culture.
He revisited India in 1979 on receiving an offer from the Indian Tourism Board to travel across India and take photographs. He went to Haridwar, Rishikesh, Amritsar, Dehradun carrying a huge Deardorff 5 x7. It was also during this period that he visited Dharamshala where he did a series of photographic portraits, including a photograph of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. This portrait of the Dalai Lama was used as a billboard all over the New York City during His Holiness’s 2003 visit.
In the 1980s, in New York, Nicholas lost all his cameras in a case of theft. At this time he was studying Buddhism and was deeply influenced by it. He invested his insurance money to study and practice Buddhism. He was introduced to his teacher, Khyongla Rato Rinpoche and The Tibet Center in New York by John and Elizabeth Avedon. After studying it for few years, he was sure that he wanted to become a monk. He went to his teacher for advice, who asked him to test his will for four years, after which he told Nicholas Vreeland to seek advice from His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who advised Vreeland to become a monk and to return back to India to study in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery, Rato Drastang. According to the Dalai Lama’s advice, Nicholas Vreeland came to India in February 1985. He became a monk on the first of March 1985, after which he joined Rato Drastang. Studying and practicing Buddhism there for thirteen years as a Rato monk, he became part of Rato Dastang. In 1998 he was awarded the Geshe degree (Doctorate of Divinity).
Nicholas Vreeland is now the Director of The Tibet Center in New York. The Tibetan Center is a Buddhist meditation and study center open to everyone and all religions. Vreeland also became the editor of An Open Heart: Practicing Compassion in Everyday Life, by the Dalai Lama. He sometimes lives in the Tibetan Rato monastery in Karnataka.
Nicholas Vreeland’s first solo exhibition “Return to the Roof of the World”, was presented by the Leica Gallery in New York and Elizabeth Avedon was the curator. This exhibition was a collection of beautiful black and white photographs taken by Leica M6s and M4. This whole series of photographs is very expressive and has very fine art style. In 2003, Tibetan incarnate Lama Khyongla Rato Rinpoche returned to his birthplace in Tibet after 50 years. Nicholas photographed the whole journey. These photographs were taken during the many days of journey on horse to the Kham, in Eastern Tibet, where Rinpoche was welcomed by devotees; most of them who were seeing their lama for the first time. The photographs are very straight forward and narrate the spiritual journey in a very simple way. When once asked about the straight forwardness in the photographs and them having a direct quality, Vreeland replied, “I think that my job in photographing is to photograph what’s before me and to present what I see to the viewer. I try not to impose my own opinion or my own values on the subject; I try to respect the subject. I feel that it’s my task to find the place where the subject speaks to me, whether it’s a person, a place, or a situation.”
In 1959, after the Chinese invasion of Tibet; some of the monks managed to escape Tibet and settled down in India. They built a two storied building in their refugee settlement camp in Mundgod , Karnataka. It was built by a group of scholars and monks educated at the original monastery. The Rato Dratsang Foundation was formed to restart the great center of learning, as well as to preserve its tradition and establishment in India, to create a dialogue with Western centers of learning. In the last fifty years, many monks have come from other parts to settle here. This monastery is now home to over 120 monks.
In the monastery, the monks study the science of Buddhist Logic which helps them to meditate and teaches methods to overcome mental confusion. Students study all branches of Buddhism to achieve the ‘Doctor of divinity’ or ‘Geshe’ degree. They are trained to become familiar with the traditional Buddhist logical analysis, which they memorize and meditate till they absorb the meaning completely. After memorizing, they are tested by their teachers via a series of formal debates. This helps them in understanding the concept thoroughly. The daily schedule in the monastery starts from early morning where the students memorize and pray. The evening sees them getting ready for debates, which go on till midnight. Twenty years of this scholastic and spiritual foundation prepares them to meditate and gain peace of mind for the rest of their lives.
The great fifth Dalai Lama said the following verse in praise of Rato Dratsang:
In the heart of the dense forest of
Lies the Tiger Nest sounding
The roar of the wisdom of logic.
May the study of logic to clear the minds,
Forever develop in the boundaries of the upper,
middle, and lower parts of the land of snow.
Nicholas Vreeland stayed here for twenty six years, practicing Buddhism and occasionally photographing it too. One day the famous photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson’s wife Martine Franck and other friends suggested him to exhibit his photographs taken in the Monastery, to gather funds for the monastery, which would facilitate the construction of the new building and temple. ‘Photos of Rato’ thus consequently came into being. This exhibition contained twenty photographs selected by the famous publisher and editor of photo books, Robert Delpire. These photographs were taken by Vreeland from the twenty six years of his stay in the Tibetan Monastery in Karnataka.
Photos for Rato is a series of photographs explaining life in the Monastery. Nicholas Vreeland has been part of Dastang Monastery for past 26 years. He practiced and studied Buddhism in the same place. Being an insider, Vreeland showcases multifarious and intricate parts of a monk’s life. These photographs include street, landscapes and photographs for daily activities. Also, along with portraits of monks, it includes images of his holiness the Dalai Lama. These images give us the essence of the life of monks in Mundgod in a very simplistic way. Each photograph portrays a sense of calmness. One can experience the still silence present in that space while looking at the photographs. Along with the distinct characteristics of lives of monks is shown the way they dress, their daily activities, et al. The photographer also shows us the landscape surrounding the monastery. Being a monk himself, Vreeland had access to different parts of the monastery at any given time. This also helped the subject to interact with the camera very naturally. Other than a few portraits, all images are naturally posed, which gives one a sense of being present there at that moment. Despite being an outsider and not having much knowledge about the Buddhism, this series connects me to those extra ordinary people who have committed there lived to the Buddhism.
Nicholas Vreeland chose to pursue Buddhism and became a Monk even after his long term association with fashion photographers and being so close to the world of fashion and glamour. It shows his simple personality and love towards Buddhism. From a photographer to a Buddhist monk, I would say Nicholas Vreeland has had a very adventurous journey, exploring spirituality and then narrating it through his beautiful and sensitive photographs. His beautiful personality reflects through his photographs distinctly.