Nicholas Vreeland: Capturing Photographs to Honor and Preserve His World

Nicholas Vreeland is a Tibetan Buddhist monk who was educated in Europe, North Africa and the United States. He later pursued a career in photography and in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s worked as an assistant to Irving Penn and Richard Avedon. Vreeland was introduced to his teacher, Khyongla Rato Rinpoche and The Tibet Center in New York by John and Elizabeth Avedon. After many years of study, he went to India to become a monk in 1985 and was awarded a Geshe Degree (Doctorate of Divinity) in 1998.

The first solo exhibition of Vreeland’s work, “Return to the Roof of the World,“ was held at the Leica Gallery in New York from April 22nd to June 4th of 2011. It follows his journey as photographer while accompanying his teacher on his return to his birthplace in Dagyab, eastern Tibet, 50 years after he had left. The collection of black and white photographs were taken as Khyongla Rinpoche and Nicholas rode horseback for many hours each day, toward the “Roof of the World,” where Rinpoche was welcomed by devotees, many of whom had never before seen their lama. Here is Vreeland’s remarkable narrative of his deeply spiritual approach to life and photography.

Q: The first word that comes to mind when viewing your images is “straightforward.” Would you agree that they have a very matter-of-fact or direct quality?

A: 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.

Q: I think that’s a very profound statement in itself and I think many of your pictures qualify as fine art. What is your view on this?

A: Accepting a compliment is tricky; having my work considered fine art is tricky. Of course I work toward creating images that work. If, in the process, they touch others, wonderful! Right now I am devoting myself to caring for my teacher, Khyongla Rinpoche. I translate for him when he teaches, I accompany him when he travels and I care for him in his home. My photography these days is limited to photographs of Rinpoche as he goes about his life. I photograph him from behind as he walks to the train station, and photograph the houses along his street. Again, I’m not trying to impose my vision on these things, I just photograph what’s before my camera and put the compositional elements together so that they have an aesthetic harmony — that’s my job.

Q: Can you tell us something about your beautiful portrait of Rinpoche, your teacher, on the mountain and how you came to take this picture?

A: It’s the only photograph in the exhibition that was specifically requested by Time Magazine for whom I was on assignment. The picture editor asked me to do a portrait of Rinpoche on the top of the world and suddenly there we were on the top of his mountain… I placed a carpet on the ground with mountains in the background. The altitude was so high that breathing was uncomfortable, to say nothing of moving! Other than that image, I just walked around photographing what was before me. I should mention that I’m not interested in going to foreign countries and documenting exotic sights. I think it’s when we’re photographing what’s closest to us, within our own environment, that the images we create can have the depth to convey something more essential. I feel very privileged that the world that I’m photographing, while traveling in Tibet with my teacher or while living in the monastery I belong to in India, is my world. People in these photographs are Khyongla Rinpoche’s relatives — they’re part of my world. In terms of my work as a monk-photographer, I feel that I’m photographing the extraordinary world in which I live, whether I’m in New York City, in my teacher’s home in New Jersey, my monastery India or in Tibet.

Q: In other words, your images transcend those of a typical travel photographer: they have a dimension, a spiritual dimension, and a sense of congruity because they represent the two parts of your life that are tied together?

A: They are two sides of my life that have begun to be brought into harmony with each other. Many years ago, I didn’t feel they were congruent. In fact, initially I didn’t even have a camera in the monastery. And when I was given one, I kept it locked in “Pandora’s box.”

Q: The Oskar Barnack Room contains five very large color portraits from the 1970’s that you shot with a 5×7 camera. Can you tell us something about your experience with the large format?

A: I went to India with an old wooden 5×7 view camera and a lot of sheets of black and white film.  A friend insisted that I take along some color sheets as well.  At each sitting, I’d expose a sheet or two of color and the color turned out to be magnificent. Shooting in large format established a very different rapport between my subjects and myself. I was photographing some of the greatest living Tibetan Buddhist masters. The slow formal quality of the view camera process helped me to photograph them respectfully.

Q: Which cameras did you use in Tibet?

A. I used two Leica M6s and an M4, and generally loaded black-and-white film into one M6 and the M4, and color into the other M6. The lenses I used were primarily a pair of 35mm f/2 Summicrons, but I also had a 50mm f/2 Summicron, a 90mm f/2.8 Elmarit, and a 135mm telephoto. However, 95% of the pictures were taken with the 35mm lenses. My relationship with the subject matter is very important to me and the 35mm focal length seems to work best. Every once in a while I try to use a 50mm, but I usually don’t find it comfortable. I keep having to step back, away from the subject and find that I also lose the sense of intimacy, a closeness to the subject matter, that I feel comfortable with. I do find that there are times when you need a longer lens. For example, you often want that distance when shooting portraits, particularly in a studio setting. But the natural focal length with respect to the subject that works for me is the 35mm. Also, I believe in letting the subject breathe; that’s something I find the 35mm lens does. This is, of course, a very personal thing. Some find the 50 to be just right, while others like the relationship to the world established with a 28mm lens.

Q: What are you trying to achieve in your landscape images?

A: I’m not trying to achieve anything, because that word implies that I am imposing my ideas. I try, as well as I can, to compose or put together as an image what I see before me. The world is full of visual information directly accessible to photographers or non-photographers. For example, I’m looking at a chair and a table with some books on it, in front of me here now. I mentally frame what I identify. As a photographer, the process is to take all of this visual stuff that’s all around me, edit it from the rest, put a frame around it and thereby identify it as something. In the process, I try to honor it and listen or look to see where it speaks back to me. I find that if I’m photographing a tree I will walk around it to see where it begins to communicate best to me. Here’s an example of this process applied to landscape photography in Tibet. We were driving along a dirt road outside Lhasa when I suddenly saw a wonderful situation before me and got out of the car to take the photograph. I then turned to the right, and there it was, the pyramid mountain. So it’s not that I’m looking to convey a feeling; it’s honoring what’s before me.

Q: Can you tell us something about how you first became interested in photography?

A: I was sent to boarding school when I was 13. There were a few cameras and two darkrooms, but no one to teach us. As the most junior photographer there I was allotted an old Leica III and a little Gossen light meter. 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. They also made me a member of the Museum of Modern Art where the first photo show I remember seeing was a small exhibition of Atget’s gardens and sculptures. I went to work for Irving Penn during my summer holidays, after which I set up a little studio in my room and photographed my fellow students. I was happiest in the darkroom, where I learned to print by trial and error. I remember the group pictures along the school hallways. There were photographs of the sports team, the crew teams, baseball teams, etc. Those taken 100 or more years ago were imbued with a calm elegance. Everyone sat in a conscious upright manner, and it was evident that they were carefully orchestrated and composed by the photographer. As the exposures were surely quite long, the subjects sat in positions they would be able to comfortably hold for some time. There was a stillness about them. The photographs taken closer to my time looked as though the photographer had lined up the different groups of students and with a handheld camera and flash, had quickly snapped his pictures. These photographs had no artistic value, but were mere documents of people standing, revealing no relationship between the photographer and his subjects. I realized that the photographer’s relationship to the subject influenced the quality of the pictures. This led me to eventually buy a 5×7 camera. When the camera is used thoughtfully it imposes and implies a relationship between the photographer and the subject. The subjects give of themselves. That whole process is very different from when you “take” pictures.

Q: We assume the image entitled Circumambulation was taken with a 35mm camera. Is that correct?

A: Yes, all of the black and white photographs were taken with a 35mm camera.

Q: But what we see here are photographs that have been very precisely composed in the viewfinder. Do you think it’s possible to achieve this level of discipline and directness with digital cameras?

A: As you can see from the black frame lines around all the images, I don’t crop. And as these are all traditional silver gelatin prints made from film, there is no possibility of manipulating the images. I feel that the discipline imposed upon one when using film forces one to be very mindful of one’s composition. One of the fears I feel with digital photography is that it’s become so simple and easy to manipulate. When you consider the possible changes you can make to an image today it becomes difficult to be precise when you’re actually composing your photograph. This is something that I’m working on since I’m taking steps to enter the digital world. As a monk I don’t have access to many things, but things are sometimes given to me, such as a Panasonic GF1. I bought a little optical viewfinder to put on top of it. It’s not quite perfect because I don’t find the viewfinder precise enough to really compose critically, but that’s what I’m using now.

Q: With a Leica M viewfinder you can see beyond the frame. Is that an advantage you make use of?

A: I suppose that I do, though I probably take it for granted. When I use an SLR I don’t have the same feeling of viewing the world before me. I’m seeing a filtered, edited, flattened rendition of what’s before me. Looking through a lens at its maximum aperture removes all the depth of field. I really appreciate the Leica rangefinder — unless of course I were shooting a formal studio portrait, or doing still-life studio work, which is not something I’d do with a Leica.

Q: Some say that the harder it is to create the image, the more relevance the image has. Would you agree with that?

A: Well Ansel Adams said something like, “The easier it gets, the worse the pictures are.” To use an analogy, I think that when I used to type using a typewriter I was far more careful. My whole level of mindfulness was more acute than when I sit at a computer where I can immediately make changes to what I’m writing. I’m not sure if the quality of what I produce is diminished — it’s just different. As someone steeped in the older techniques, I feel I must tap into this new world. On the one hand, I try to hold onto my old values and disciplines, while on the other hand I need to take advantage of the new opportunities that modern technologies provide. Whatever the technology I’m using, I find that when I’m photographing something and I become so engrossed that I lose my sense of self in the process, that’s when my pictures are a little better. Of course, arriving at that point where you lose yourself often requires hard work.  You struggle with a problem and then suddenly you go beyond the self-conscious relationship with the world. That’s where you need to get, with whatever type of camera you’re using.

-Leica Internet Team

To see more of Nicholas Vreeland’s work, please visit http://www.nicholasvreeland.com/.