The Tension of Art and Ego Drives the ‘Monk With a Camera’

As Nicholas Vreeland's journey into Buddhist philosophy goes deeper, the tension between his photography and his role as a monk increases.
2014-12-12 (Limited release)

“Where you place that lens — the height, the angle, the settings — is an integral part of what you capture. Where I place myself determines my shot. All of these things change everything!”

Nicky Vreeland

“So, would you like to see my girlfriend?” With this, the Buddhist monk Geshe Thupten Lhundup leads the camera through a yellow door, in order to meet another camera. “She has beautiful German eyes,” he observes as he pulls a dust cover off his lovely Leica, then amends, “A beautiful German eye.”

And so, Monk With a Camera: The Life and Journey of Nicholas Vreeland establishes what seems at first its central, titular relationship. But even as the grandson of Diana Vreeland demonstrates his good humor here, the film about his “life and journey” offers another, more complicated view. As the documentary goes on to track Nicky’s movements, through his past and through his evolving philosophy, it also poses questions, concerning the relationships between material and spiritual lives, community and individual identities, beliefs and representations.

Each of these relationships poses a dilemma, and all might be understood to pose questions for everyone. To be sure, Nicky Vreeland embodies a rather singular example: the grandson of longtime Vogue editor Diana Vreeland and the son of a diplomat who grew up living in privilege all over the world, he found his way into photography by working with people like John Avedon. It’s a set of unusual circumstances Nicky discusses for the film, as do his father “Frecky”, his brother Alexander, and his stepbrother Ptolemy Tompkins, as well as friends and associates like Richard Gere. On one level, they’re the sort of talking heads you expect, recalling his dandyish fashion sense and marveling at his choice to give up his nice shoes and pocket squares for the austerity of a monastery.

But at the same time, they help to make visual other questions, as they sit for their interviews in posh hotel rooms or offices. One of these questions is obvious, as when Tonne Goodman, fashion director at Vogue, notes, “He went from a very opulent space to a very sparse space and I always wondered what that was like for him.” The film doesn’t offer precise answers for this, but instead, shows possibilities of what it might “be like”.

The film’s many striking images — both those Nicky’s photographs and its own evocations of his “journey” — support and sometimes complicate Nicky’s version, his experience, interviewed now and also back in the ’70s, when he first shaved his head and started studying at the Tibet Center in New York with Khyongla Rato Rinpoche. He remembers that he first saw “Tibet” in the Tin Tin books, that he decided to meditate when he read an article in Time magazine, that he met the Dalai Lama when he was assigned to photograph him in India in 1979. “It had to do with becoming a better person,” he suggests, “It had to do with becoming a less selfish person, it had to do with developing a concern for others.”

In this becoming, Nicky spent some 14 years in the monastery, where he also took photos. Now, the film camera follows the monk with a camera as he walks in Central Park, gives a sandwich to a man on a New York sidewalk, sits with and translates for his mentor, Khyongla Rato Rinpoche, now a former monk, living in an apartment in Manhattan. Whether close or wide, the frames on these activities remain mobile, suggesting not only Nicky’s energy during each interaction, but also the variety of spaces in which he undertakes his journey, none of them particularly “sparse”, which is to say, the tensions inherent in being a celebrity monk.

It’s hardly a unique circumstance, but living in multiple spaces does make for continual “developing”. If Nicky might once have left behind his past, his name, and his privilege, his return to it has admirable purpose and fascinating context. As the film relates, during a 2008 effort to rebuild Rato Dratsang Monastery, a 10th century Tibetan Buddhist monastery, in India, funding fell apart. Nicky turned to his friends to help him devise a way to display and sell his photos in order to complete the project. And so his underlined as he appears in galleries with his art and signs autographs. “Photography for me,” says Nicky, “It has the quality of an addiction: the more I do it, the more I want to do it.”

And so again, you’re aware of the essential dilemma, for Nicky and perhaps for Buddhism or other efforts to connect and blur self and not-self. If his photos show trees and mountains, monks and temples, they also sell ideas and become commercial product. Art represents and refers, it expresses and imagines, for selves.

“You don’t produce art without some kind of ego gratification,” observes Goodman, “It sneaks in there somehow. Either it breaks you, it torments you or it fulfills you. But it is an acknowledgment of the ego, which of course, in the Tibetan discipline is not encouraged.” She can’t know how it works for Nicky but, she goes on, “I think it bothers him, that he still loves something and it loves him back. And he’s not supposed to have that kind of relationship, I don’t think. It’s the ultimate conflict for somebody like Nicky.” Monk With a Camera suggests that this conflict can be more expansive, that art and communication, ego and compassion might shape all kinds of lives, not only that of “somebody like Nicky”.

RATING 7 / 10