Sunday, May 21, was a good day for Paul Grand. He sold one of his photographs for $3,000 at an event at the famous Boehm estate in Titusville, sponsored by the J&W Gallery in New Hope, which just started representing Grand (he has been taking photographs for close to 20 years). “(That kind of sale) is unusual given what most people buy at galleries in New Hope, which is local landscapes,” says Grand in an interview from his Highland Park home. The photo, entitled “Tafraute: Homage to Mondrian,” was an abstraction of a wall in Morocco.
What’s also unusual is that Grand is a former corporate executive who retired as a VP of Colgate-Palmolive at the ripe old age of 46, a self-made Brooklyn boy, the son of a man who never completed high school and supported his family with a housecleaning service called the Housewife’s Delight. When Grand was 13, his mother, a housewife who later became a school secretary, decided her son, who shared a bed with his brother and slept on the fire escape in the summer, should escape his lower middle class upbringing and become a chemist.
The frugality he had grown accustomed to as a child served him well as an adult, enabling him to retire early and follow his bliss — photography. “I had always consciously lived below my means,” says Grand, who earned a BS in chemistry from Queen’s College in 1963 and a Ph.D. in 1969 from CalTech on National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation fellowships. In 1988, after 19 years with Colgate-Palmolive, first in R&D in Piscataway and then as VP for its venture company in New York, Grand went out on his own.
“After many years of decompressing from science to technical management to business experience, the concept, or aspiration, of making money was not an embarrassment or a crime,” he says. But after lining up SBA loans and negotiating leases for two espresso cafes — to be named Just Grand! — Grand says he chickened out. “I wasn’t an entrepreneur and wasn’t about to put my money on the line to execute my dream.” Instead he took all the smarts he had acquired about coffee cafes — “It didn’t take much additional brain surgery to appreciate the power of the concept” — and in 1993 invested 90 percent of his money in a little coffee company called Starbucks.
Since then, says Grand, “I have spent the rest of my life growing up.” Divorced with two grown daughters, four grandchildren and a fifth on the way, Grand says “I’m a terrific father and grandfather now.” In a 2000 interview in Time Out New York, Grand said “The photography has done so much for me. The Jewish prayer for the dead talks about righteousness, and that’s what I’m working on — being a righteous human being. I’m finally old enough to realize that I wasn’t the greatest thing since sliced bread as a corporate executive, vis-a-vis my family. And I’m really trying to be a good guy now.”
He has toted his 35-pound backpack of Nikon camera equipment — three lenses (from telephoto to wide angle) and two bodies (one for black and white, one for color), and nary a piece of digital equipment in sight — all over the world. He spent 10 winters and summers climbing in Switzerland, and has traveled to Oaxaca, Mexico; Morocco; Tunisia; Egypt; Turkey; India; Thailand; Cambodia; and Laos. He calls his photography “landscape portraiture a la Ansel Adams. I shoot everything with a tripod, intimately composed in the viewfinder; there is never any cropping.”
Grand will open “When the Photographer Is Ready Lord Buddha Will Appear,” an exhibit of images of Buddha and Buddhist temples taken in Southeast Asia, at the Erdman Gallery of the Princeton Theological Seminary, on Saturday, June 10, with a reception and artist’s talk at 4 p.m. A Buddhist nun, Bhiksuni Karma Trime Lhamo, who lives in Kendall Park, will precede Grand’s talk with an introductory lecture and seminar on Buddhism at 1 p.m. She will present basic themes of Buddhist thought — compassion, generosity, mindfulness, self-awareness, and the interconnectedness of all creatures — and will explore the early life and teachings of the Buddha.
‘I take photos of Buddha as an affirmation of the calm, peace, and happiness that I feel in his presence, in every Buddha representation in every temple. I continue to photograph him in an attempt to better understand the blessing I feel around him. Although some of these images may seem ‘exotic,’ I am more often than not struck by their universality, universal because we are all brothers and sisters under the same skin.”
First introduced to Buddhism by a former girlfriend, “a practicing Catholic-Quaker-Buddhist,” Grand says he has read a number of books on the subject. “But I don’t practice because I have a clear understanding of my purpose on this earth, which is to share love, happiness, lightness, laughter, and kindness with those who are near and dear to me.”
In his artist’s talk Grand will discuss three “encapsulations” of his Buddhist journeys:
“The first is a simple saying. My life conforms to an old teaching, ‘all of my experiences are to my benefit.’ You can turn any negative into a positive and any positive into a negative. If you truly believe ‘all of my experiences are to my benefit,’ you will lead a more positive and productive life.
“The second is a question I asked a wise monk. I told him that my beloved mom died recently. I said that I felt very sad but I felt no sense of suffering and wondered whether I should. I observed that I didn’t suffer because I knew that my mom was in heaven wit my dad. The monk replied that I was experiencing the blessing of acceptance, a central Buddhist tenet. Part of my fascination with Buddhism developed from its exploration of consciousness, awareness, acceptance, compassion, suffering, and love.
“Lastly, a story about the difficulty of communicating. In Luang Prabang, Laos, a student of English stopped me and asked for help in interpreting an expression that his teacher shared with the class that morning. What, he asked, does ‘costing an arm and a leg’ mean? So obvious to us and so alien to him. I can only hope that (my) images clearly and expressively speak for themselves.”
Grand says he will expand his Buddhist consciousness this fall with a visit to Yangon, Bagan, and Mandalay. He is particularly excited about visiting Bagan, situated in Myanmar’s central plain, where 2,200 temples still exist around the immediate area.
Grand calls his photographic journeys “image safaris. And the subjects are quite elusive. In an average eight hours of stalking, I take six to eight pictures. Compare this to a commercial photographer who may shoot thousands of images on a month-long assignment. I budget way too much time for all my single day to six-week trips in order to buy the time to meander slowly, soulfully, and carefully.”
Grand has also taken his slow meanderings (and strong legs) to launch a gigantic project that will certainly take many years to complete: walking and photographing every street in Manhattan. This project has already been chronicled on Fox News and National Public Radio and in Time Out New York and Outside magazine, in which he was quoted: “I’m consumed by the city. There’s a more expansive palette here than anywhere else. Depravity, squalor, joy, spirituality — all the world exists here. That’s why it’s a great place to hike.”
Opening reception and artist talk, Saturday, June 10, 1 to 5:30 p.m., Princeton Theological Seminary, Erdman Gallery. Photographer Paul Grand speaks on his exhibit “When the Photographer is Ready, Lord Buddha Will Appear” featuring images of the Buddha and temples in Southeast Asia, at 4 p.m. Introductory seminar on Buddhism presented by Bhiksuni Karma Trime Lhamo at 1 p.m. Register. Seminar and reception, $15. The exhibit is on view through July 21.
This event kicks off the seminary’s Summer Spirituality Series, which includes a June 19 seminar, “The Da Vinci Code: Fiction, Christ, and the Real Mary Magdelene”; and a four-session series, Medieval Mysticism, July 10, 17, 24, and 31. Both are presented by Paul Rorem. 609-497-7990.
Gallery hours are Monday to Saturday, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; and Sunday, 2:30 to 9 p.m.