MONK WITH A CAMERA

Would you like to see my girlfriend?” Nicholas Vreeland asks. Considering that Vreeland has been a chaste Buddhist monk for the past 28 years, you can bet that this “girlfriend” is not of the typical kind. Indeed, it is not. Vreeland’s girlfriend is a camera.

Tutored by famed photographer Irving Penn, Vreeland began taking photos as a young man with his sights set on a career in photography. He had the knack for it, but in 1972 Vreeland stepped away from the Western world, took his vows as a monk, and renounced all worldly possessions. However, there is nothing in the text that says Vreeland can’t practice his hobby, and years later, Vreeland found life pushing him to pick up a camera once again. 

Vreeland’s style is elegant yet simple, a synthesis of depicting reality while also composing it. Vreeland photographs everything from portraits of monks to austere shots of nature. He describes his style as, “[A] place where the tree and the compositional elements come together and harmonize in such a way that the image has a certain quality.”

Vreeland loves his work, but he does wrestle with it often, debating if the act of photography is either vitreous or not. Indeed, the permanency of capturing a moment in time is at complete odds with a basic Buddhist belief in transience. Vreeland also acknowledges that to be a good photographer, one must practice often. That brings his hobby dangerously close to an addiction—one that Vreeland assumes that he is above. But it is the pursuit of perfection that is most in line with his understanding of Buddhism. Just as he works day in, day out to quiet his mind and bring stillness to his world, Vreeland photographs day after day, practicing his photography the way a pianist practices scales. 

Monk With a Camera is a movie with an instant hook: Nicholas Vreeland, son of a U.S. diplomat and grandson of the “Empress of Fashion” Diane Vreeland, turned his back on the family fortune and a Manhattan lifestyle, shaved his head, and traveled to India to be a Buddhist monk. There is a parallel here with Prince Siddhartha, but it is not one that directors Tina Mascara and Guido Santi are interested in exploring. Instead, they present Vreeland as a modern-day St. Augustine, a man straddling the East and the West, the traditional and the modern. 

The title is Monk With a Camera, and when the movie stays on Vreeland and his photography, it is at its most focused. But Vreeland has made some very large accomplishments, and the directors work hard to wedge as much of them in as possible, taking a scattershot approach of interviews, scenes of animation, and a few fly-on-the-wall scenes to dole out information. They try to inform but fail to ask questions of any real significance, choosing to maintain a respectful distance from Vreeland rather than engage with him. It’s not entirely their fault. Vreeland may live a quiet and simple life, but his accomplishments are large. Too large for a scant 90-minute running time, but just enough for a monk and his camera. Now streaming on Kanopy.

A version of the above review first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 22, No. 25, “Photographing philosophy.”