A Charmed Life, Documented

In his new book, Honolulu resident and seasoned National Geographic photographer Paul Chesley shows us the world through his lens.

The MAIKO didn’t know I had snapped her picture,” recalls NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC photographer Paul Chesley when i asked him how he captured the iconic cover image for his book, Paul Chesley, A Photographic Voyage. As we sat in his studio near Diamond Head, Chesley retold the story as if it had just happened. “As I saw the maiko (a geisha apprentice) pick up the glass of lemonade to take a sip, I aimed my camera and clicked the shutter and knew I captured that special moment.”


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Kyoto, Japan 1988: A maiko (apprentice geisha) boards a high-speed bullet train to take her to the nearby city of Osaka where she will entertain at a dinner party. Photo courtesy of Paul Chesley

The cover image is an unguarded moment with no pretense and no set up; a photograph defining Chesley’s signature style. He’s famously known for capturing unguarded moments that helped him rise above the competition allowing him to reach the pinnacle of the photography world: working for The National Geographic Society.

Chesley, who stands over six feet tall, knew he’d have a tough time blending into a room full of demure Japanese geishas, but the photographer has an uncanny ability to “disappear” when he’s taking pictures. After several hours, the geishas forgot about the photographer and let their guard down and that’s when Chesley struck. “I snapped only one frame before she put the glass down,” the photographer said about the cover shot.

During his career, Chesley photographed 35 assignments for National Geographic and hundreds more for many national and international. After studying photography in Colorado, Chesley landed several magazine assignments that caught the attention of the photo editors at National Geographic. Chesley’s first assignment for NGS was to photograph the Saw Tooth Mountain Range in Minnesota that eventually led to a solo book project on the Rocky Mountains, solidifying his reputation as an elite member of the National Geographic Society.

Along with his many assignments for National Geographic, Chesley contributed to the A Day in the Life book series worked on numerous jobs in Hawai‘i. His images have been showcased at the East-West Center at UH and he is currently working on a book project documenting Japanese temples throughout the islands.

Originally from Minnesota, Chesley moved to sunny Hawai‘i nearly a decade ago from Colorado. He admits, “I grew tired of the long winters in Aspen and loved Hawai‘i.” Chesley does have family ties in Hawai‘i stretching back several generations as his grandfather would regularly visit his former student Harold Lyon and his mother attended boarding school at Punahou School.

Chesley lived a charmed life jetting around the globe to photograph exotic locations many would only see within the pages of National Geographic. “It was the golden age of photography where day rates were high and assignments could last months at a time with unlimited expense accounts…” he says. But there was always the condition he returned with only the best images for the assignment.

Although Chesley fastidiously prepared before any assignment, he remains a strong believer in the decisive moment, an adage attributed to legendary photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, who stated great photographers have an intuition when to capture that precise instance. Yet, all the preparation in the world has no meaning if you can’t be at the location to capture that serendipitous scene. “Stuff is going to happen if you’re there or not, so you have to be there and give yourself time to capture those special moments,” says Chesley.

He does concede the visual world has changed from the time he made many of his images in the book. Instagram and the iPhone have made photographers out of all of us but what differentiates Chesley’s work is his images are not snapshots. With all the planning and preparation that goes into his assignment, nothing is random. “Everything is planned,” he reveals. “Those special moments are only captured because I put the time in to research when they would happen.”

For his book, Chesley and his editor took several months to sort through nearly two million images from his expansive photo library. His permanent archive now consists of roughly 70,000 photographs. Chesley and a team of editors took several years to create his book from his library. The images span a lengthy career of 40 years of assignments for National Geographic along with many other unpublished and personal images. His book illustrates an illustrious life of travel, remote locations and exotic cultures. The book is almost a personal diary documenting the charmed life of a photographer in the golden age of National Geographic.

Many of the scenes in his book however, can no longer be found as the modern world and growing numbers in tourism is erasing the past. “You won’t find that many bicycles in Ho Chi Minh City nor do I think I can capture the same photo at Angkor Wat as there are too many tourists now,” he says. But that does not discourage him from traveling and seeking out beautiful images in these once exotic locations. Chesley postulates that if he had to go back and reshoot many of the scenes in his book, he would not look for the past but capture what’s there now. He shares, “I’m looking for the modern world as I see it now. I’m a street photographer and I can still find the decisive moment… It is still a colorful and amazing world.”

The golden age of photography is quickly ending for many photographers as budgets and fees are now much smaller and today’s assignments would never last as long. Chesley knows there would be new constraints in any future assignments but strongly feels he can still capture the beautiful moments when on assignments. Chesley knows his golden age hasn’t ended and will continue to go on with his career and capture the world around him, regardless of new constraints or the changing globe.

Chesley emphatically denies his book is a requiem on his career but is “an up to this point” tale of a photographer who’s lived and will continue to live a charmed life, documented. And surely, he will continue to photograph those beautiful moments that most of us will never notice.

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