Nicholas Vreeland has a shaved head and a famous last name. The first, obvious and gleaming, advertises his humility and his life as a Tibetan Buddhist monk. The second, subtle and refined, suggests just how hard that humility was to come by.
Diana Vreeland, Nicky’s grandmother, was the editor-in-chief of Vogue from 1963 to 1971, and her understated, impeccable vision made dandies of her offspring, especially Nicky; even after renouncing worldly pleasures, he polishes his Birkenstock sandals until they gleam.
This paradox is the subject of the marvelous documentary Monk With a Camera. Polishing shoes is practical; they last longer. Nicky has a harder time locating such tangible value in photography, the one vestige of his old life that he cannot forsake. “Would you like to meet my girlfriend?” he asks early in the film. Nicky is referring to his camera, with her “beautiful…eye.” But an eye for detail and delicacy — noticing and valuing an ant, which he feels must be protected from the destructive force of an errant human foot — is as much Buddhist ethos as good editorial instinct.
Nicky’s photography is meditation; while living at a monastery in India, he creates spare studies of his room, his desk — and the sale of those simple photos allows the monastery an unusual, financial transcendence. Because of Nicky’s powerful connections, the monks can build otherwise unaffordable living quarters. Is photography an appropriate pursuit for a monk? Can a white man with so opulent a background honor a true Buddhist ethos in the West?
Monk With a Camera hints at answers, but imposes nothing. Like a good photograph, or a wise abbot, it only presents the evidence and allows us to arrive at truth.