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Former Geology Professor John Shelton '35's Photographs Exhibited in San Diego

The San Diego Natural History Museum exhibit Aerial Portraits of the American West: Photographs by John Shelton is on view through November 2. Shelton '35, a La Jolla geologist, photographer and former Pomona College geology professor (1945-1960) passed away on July 24, 2008, at his home.

The 33 aerial photographs in the exhibit offer Shelton’s unique perspective of geologic formations and processes from Alaska to Baja California. The photographs were taken by Shelton over the course of several decades—from the 1940s through the ‘70s. The collection was shot with a military aerial reconnaissance camera, showing immense detail that would be almost impossible to capture today due to pollution’s effects on air clarity.

“I didn't discover geology until my junior year," Shelton said in a recent interview with the La Jolla Light. That discovery came in Professor A. O. "Woody" Woodford's introductory geology course. As it was too late to change majors, he graduated with a dual degree in math and music. Upon Woodford's advice, he went on to Yale for graduate studies in geology and called himself a “student of the earth.” Shelton taught at Pomona, worked for the Strategic Minerals Branch of the U.S. Geological Survey, and later served as an advisor on geology films.

He began taking photos as a way to demonstrate geology to his students, and also as a way to combine his three passions: flying, photography and geology. From the 1930s through the 1990s, Shelton photographed evidence of continental drift, plate tectonics and other principles all over the globe. One famous photo shows an orange grove that straddled the San Andreas Fault; its perfectly aligned rows of trees were offset during an earthquake.

Shelton, considered a key figure in geology, authored the introductory textbook Geology Illustrated, which was later named one of the most important 100 books of the last century by Scientific American. In 1993, Shelton received the American Geological Institute Legendary Geologist Award for “Outstanding Contribution to Public Understanding of Geology.”

Shelton maintained close ties to Pomona College's Geology department, including returning to Campus as the annual Woodford-Eckis speaker in 1995, delivering lectures on "A Feel for How the Earth Works" and "The Aerial Perspective." In a letter sent out by the Geology department upon Shelton's passing, Professor Linda A. Reinen, chair of the department, said "John's myriad contributions to the teaching and learning of geology will continue to influence geology students for many years to come."

For further information regarding the exhibition, visit the San Diego Natural History Museum web site at or call (619) 232-3821.

Article updated 07/31/08