Vreeland was born in Switzerland and had lived in Germany, Morocco, France, Italy, and America before coming to live in India. And if his surname sounds familiar, it’s because his grandmother was the influential fashion editor Diana Vreeland.
In the late sixties and early seventies, during his summer holidays in New York City, he worked in the studios of two great photographers. “I was very fortunate to be able to work for Irving Penn when I was 15 years old”, says Vreeland. “Mr. Penn recommended that I work for Richard Avedon the next summer. I continued working for these two great photographers whenever I was able to”.
In 1971 the Vreelands moved to Paris, and Nicholas spent the first two years of college “mainly enjoying the wonders of that beautiful city”. He continued assisting Penn and Avedon when they came to Paris, however he then returned to New York to study film at New York University. After completing his studies there he resumed his first love, still photography, and supported himself as a photographer.
The Indian Experience:
Vreeland first came to India in 1972. He visited his godfather, Ambassador Shankar Bajpai, who was Political Officer in Sikkim. Vreeland, in college in Paris at the time, traveled throughout Sikkim and then visited Bhutan and Nepal. “That was my first introduction to Tibetan Buddhist culture”, he recalls.
Vreeland’s passion for photography was instrumental in bringing him back to India in 1979. He was invited by the Indian Tourism Board to travel wherever he wished and to take photographs. He went to Haridwar, Rishikesh, Amritsar, Dehradun with a large wooden view camera. In the course of his travels, Vreeland visited Dharamshala where he did a series of photographic portraits, including a photograph of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He was then asked by the Office of the Dalai Lama to photograph His Holiness’s first trip to America. “I think that everyone was so impressed by the large wooden camera I had used for these portraits. No one had seen any of my photographs”. However, the opportunity cemented Vreeland’s interest in Buddhism.
In the 1980s, when he was still a professional photographer in New York, his cameras were all stolen from his apartment. To feed his growing interest in Buddhism, he used the insurance money to support himself as he devoted more and more time to his study and practice of Buddhism under the guidance of Rato Khyongla Rinpoche, the Tibetan incarnate lama who founded New York’s Tibet Center. “Eventually, I had a clear idea that I wanted to study and practice Buddhism as a monk”, he says. “My teacher, Khyongla Rinpoche advised that I test my decision for a few years. After four years Rinpoche told me to ask His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s advice and His Holiness encouraged me to become a monk and to come to India to study in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery. I came to India in February 1985, and became a monk on the first of March. The day after, I joined Rato Dratsang, the monastery where my teacher had studied, in Tibet”. Vreeland remained at Rato for 13 years before being awarded a Geshe degree (Doctorate of Divinity) in 1998. He now divides his time between Rato Dratsang in India and The Tibet Center in New York.