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An apprentice geisha sips from a glass of lemonade in a 1988 National Geographic photo by Paul Chesley. The Red Wing native’s 40-year photography career sent him around the globe. (Photograph by Paul Chesley©2013)

A career of captured moments

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Having worked for several renowned publications, Red Wing native Paul Chesley travelled the world in search of exotic locales and interesting stories.

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In his new book, “Paul Chesley: A Photographic Voyage,” the veteran National Geographic Society photographer showcases 40 years of images taken across six continents.

The book features essays from international journalist Keith Lorenz and an introduction by former National Geographic Editor Bert Fox. Their insights give background on the photos as well as the locations and cultures they portray, Chesley said.

Through all of his adventures, Chesley, the grandson of local icon A.P. Anderson, said he never lost sight of his upbringing at his family’s Tower View estate.

“It was very nice being in the countryside,” Chesley said, recalling raising 4-H cows and horses with his two older sisters, Margaret Chesley and Gretchen Chesley Lang.

The siblings got their start taking pictures around Tower View and on vacations with parents Frank and Jean Chesley to Cape Cod, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon. It was on these trips, Chesley said, that he developed an interest in the American Southwest, a place he would return to numerous times in his career.

After graduating from Red Wing’s Central High School, Chesley studied photography in the late 1960s at Colorado Mountain College in Glenwood Springs, Colo. He then moved to nearby Aspen, Colo., where he built his portfolio with workshops and journeys abroad.

He caught his big break after Robert E. Gilka, the director of photography at the National Geographic Society, noticed Chesley’s work on the cover of a German magazine.

“It was quite exciting, indeed,” said Chesley, who had dreamed of one day working for National Geographic. “My parents were very proud.”

Chesley later helped found a photography agency with three other National Geographic Society photographers and do photo shoots for some of the industry’s biggest magazines, including Time, Newsweek and Fortune.

Chesley said his assignments brought him face to face with notable figures such as astronaut Buzz Aldrin, a young Bill Gates and gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, whom he later befriended.

“(Thompson) loved shooting guns,” said Chesley, who captured a series of photographs of the infamous writer firing at a typewriter in the snow.

Of all his work, Chesley said he was most fond of traveling to other countries, which included extensive assignments across Asia.

Among Chesley’s most recognizable work is a 1988 National Geographic shoot exploring Japan’s geisha and sumo wrestler communities.

“I really felt fortunate,” said Chesley, who, as an outsider, had to first spend a couple months gaining the trust of the secretive groups. Now a resident of Honolulu, Chesley said he enjoys coming back to Red Wing once or twice a year to catch up with his sisters and cousins in the local Hedin and Bayley families.

Although focusing on publicity for now, Chesley said he has no plans to end his photography career anytime soon.

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Michael Brun
Michael Brun is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-River Falls journalism program. He has worked for the Republican Eagle since March 2013, covering county government, health and local events. 
(651) 301-7875
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