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Aerial Portraits of the American West: Photographs by John Shelton
Kaskawulsh Glacer, Canada.

SAN DIEGO, CA.- From May 11–November 2, 2008, the San Diego Natural History Museum will present Aerial Portraits of the American West: Photographs by John Shelton. The black-and-white photography exhibition, a retrospective of Shelton’s work, marks the first time works by the well-known geologist will be exhibited for the public. Shelton is the author of Geology Illustrated, considered by many scientists and professors one of the best geology reference books available. Admission to the exhibition is included in the General Admission to the Museum.

A geologist filled with a love for music and machines, John Shelton is best known for his pioneering aerial photography. Formerly an associate professor of geology at Pomona College, he has always been intensely interested in the process of learning. For 12 years, he served as geology consultant for Encyclopedia Britannica educational films. Shelton’s love and knowledge of flying enabled him to reveal geologic features and processes through his aerial photographs of wondrous landscapes. In 1993 Shelton received the American Geological Institute Legendary Geologist Award for “Outstanding Contribution to Public Understanding of Geology.”

Shelton authored Geology Illustrated, a comprehensive textbook lavishly illustrated with his aerial photos. “Geology Illustrated was first published in the late 60s, while I was in graduate school,” says Museum President and CEO Michael Hager, Ph.D. “It was exceptional then and a classic now. Today’s skies are not clear enough to create these wonderful images. John Shelton, at 94 years young, has produced these incredible images in Museum size and quality and they are still the best illustrations of geologic processes available.” In 1999, Geology Illustrated was chosen as one of the top 100 science books of the 20th century by American Scientist magazine.

Unlike most aerial photographers, Shelton flew mostly alone and never had the luxury of using a viewfinder. He maneuvered his low-winged air plane to align his large-format camera through a small, open window to optimize the angle, lighting, and composition of each geologic feature. Originally, his exposures were made with a handheld light meter, but eventually he determined his camera settings from experience.

An article about Shelton in Earth magazine (March, 1994) noted, “The oblique aerial view of most of Shelton’s photos offers a useful perspective that neither a ground view nor a high-altitude view can provide. A geologist, teacher and pilot, Shelton wanted to make pictures that would be as informative as they were inspirational. The beauty of his photos reveals the eye of an artist, yet there is a geological lesson to be learned from every one.”

Celebrating its 134th year, the San Diego Natural History Museum is the second oldest scientific institution in California, third west of the Mississippi. Its mission is to interpret the natural world through research, education, and exhibits; to promote understanding of the evolution and diversity of southern California and the peninsula of Baja California and to inspire in all a respect for nature and the environment. Located in Balboa Park, the Museum is open daily except for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Phone: 619.232.3821. Website:

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