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Capturing history one frame at a time

Posted: August 16, 2008 8:30 p.m.
Updated: October 18, 2008 5:02 a.m.

Daniel Watson displays one of the oldest negatives in the Watson Family Photography Archive collection - a glass plate shot by his great-grandfather James Watson. The image is thought to have been shot in 1903 and depicts Buffalo Bill Cody and his Wild West Show in a parade down Broadway in Los Angeles. Daniel Watson's great-uncle, George R. Wat...

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In the small, nondescript brown building tucked well off a Glendale street is a treasure trove of Los Angeles history. Perhaps the greatest collection of photographic news images in private hands lies within the walls of the Watson Family Photographic Archive. The history of 20th century Los Angeles in still images resides in file cabinets and three-ring binders.

Among the treasures: An image of Buffalo Bill Cody (1903) leading a parade down Broadway in Los Angeles for his Wild West Show - captured on a glass plate; a print of Douglas Fairbanks in the "Thief of Bagdad" and the special effects that made his carpet "fly" (invented by Coy Watson Sr.); graphic images of the mutilated body of the Black Dahlia and stark black-and-white prints depicting the devastation of the St. Francis Dam disaster.

The keeper of this historic flame is Daniel Watson of Castaic. Watson works to catalog and preserve his family's photographic legacy - a task handed down to him from previous generations of Watsons. He is the last of his line. None of the younger generation of Watsons have inherited his passion for photography.

"The entire history of news photography in Los Angeles is in this room," Watson said.

Watson, 51, previously worked as the chief photographer and photo editor of The Signal from 1998 to 2003.

The Watson Family
The famous Watson family of photographers, which spans four generations, had its beginning when James and Amy Watson emigrated from England in 1885 to establish Salvation Army "encampments" in North America. Moving from Canada to Denver to Los Angeles, James Watson enjoyed his hobby of photography.

One of the oldest photos in the collection is the 1903 image captured on a glass plate of Buffalo Bill Cody and an 11-year-old barefoot boy holding onto Cody's carriage - that boy was Dan Watson's great-uncle George R. Watson.

James Watson had six sons and three daughters. In addition to George, his sons included Coy (Daniel Watson's grandfather) and Bill.

George Watson became the first staff photographer hired by the Los Angeles Times in 1917. He was also founder and first president of the Los Angeles Press Photographers Association. He photographed 10 of the nation's presidents and thousands of politicians, movie stars, crackpots, criminals and heroes - the flotsam and jetsam that was Los Angeles.

He also photographed catastrophic disasters - the 1925 Santa Barbara earthquake, 1933 Long Beach earthquake, fires, floods and the 1927 Owens River Aqueduct bombings. Among his most famous photos shot in the Santa Clarita Valley are his photos of the 1928 St. Francis Dam disaster.

George Watson photographed many of the "firsts" in Los Angeles. He shot the first aerial photos of Los Angeles in 1919, arrival of the first airmail service, the first "air police," the first blood transfusion, the first picture "event" sent by wire, the first lie detector test and the construction of L.A.'s first skyscraper, the 13-floor City Hall building.

He came to the Los Angeles Times because he wasn't making enough money with his invention of microfilm.

"He was ahead of his time," said Daniel Watson. "He held the patent on the microfilm machine he invented, but he sold it for $250. His partner ended up making millions on it. But if he had been successful, he wouldn't have gotten the job at the L.A. Times, and all of this might never have happened."

Among his many accomplishments, George Watson also suggested installing the Lindbergh Beacon atop Los Angeles City Hall. The beacon was turned on by President Calvin Coolidge from the White House on April 26, 1928, during the dedication ceremonies. The beacon was dedicated to Charles Lindbergh to commemorate man's first trans-Atlantic flight.

Coy Watson, Daniel Watson's grandfather, became an early pioneer in the movie industry when it got its start in Edendale (an area of Echo Park that predated Hollywood).

Bill Watson worked as a film editor on many early, silent Mack Sennett and Christie brothers comedies.

Third generation
Coy also had six sons and three daughters, Coy junior, Billy, Harry, Delmar, Garry (Dan Watson's father), Vivian, Gloria, Louise and Bobs.

"They were all child actors, that's how Bobs got his name," Watson said. "There was an actor named Bob and another named Bobby Watson. Bobby Watson played Hitler in all the movies, and my 10-year-old uncle would get phone calls to play Hitler so they had to change his name. They just added an ‘S' to Bob and he became Bobs."

The nine children of Coy and Golda Watson appeared in more than 1,000 movies in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. As the boys grew up, they all followed their uncle George into the news business.

"George Watson became the head of the L.A. division of ACME news pictures (in 1929), which was like Associated Press today," Watson said. "He gave all the boys their start."

The Watsons quickly moved to staff photographer positions at a variety of early Los Angeles newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, the old Daily News of Los Angeles, the Mirror-News, the Post Record and the L.A. Record.

"It was a competitive time for the news business - it was like the wild West of the news business," Watson said. "The story handed down in the family is no photo editor would ever hire two Watsons on the same newspaper because they were too crazy and wild."

Watson said the competition was so intense that often photographers would do things that today would be looked at as unethical.

"It was a different time. You knew everybody and were friends, but if you could one-up another newspaper by doing something not as ethical, you would do it," he said.

Among George Watson's inventions was a miniature camera to record courtroom scenes when cameras were barred.

Inheriting the family's inventive streak, Coy Jr. invented many improvements to early cameras, a way to make his job easier.

"In the 1920s he invented a way to focus a camera in the dark; someone copied his idea and put it in the Graflex camera of the 1940s," Watson said. "He was also the first to synchronize flashbulbs with the camera lens being open. We take it for granted to be able to walk around and take pictures, but before his invention you had to set a camera up on a tripod."

Harry Watson was sent to the South Pacific as a combat photographer in World War II. He photographed three major landing invasions and the 1944 return of Gen. Douglas MacArthur to Leyte Island in the Philippines.

"I'm really proud of him," Watson said.

Fourth generation
Daniel Watson's first job was with the Valley News and Greensheet.

"My dad worked there, and he gave me a foot in the door, my first real job, just like his uncle had done for him, like all the Watsons had done for the next generation," he said. "I worked in the darkroom, I was part time. But they had a rule about nepotism so they couldn't hire me as staff."

Watson then went to work at the Burbank Daily Review, followed by a stint at the Glendale News-Press.
"I bounced around, I became a staff photographer at the Santa Anita Race Track because the money was better, then a chemical company, followed by the Museum of Natural History," he said.

In 1998 Watson came to The Signal. He returned to the Glendale News Press in 2003, then left in 2007 to manage the family archive.

Among those who have sought out the archive is a company doing a television documentary on gangster Mickey Cohen.

"He was part of the Bugsy Siegel organization. We have 65 original photos of him, starting when he was a boxer at age 15 to when he died in the 1970s," Watson said.

The Getty
The archive has also attracted the attention of The Getty Museum.

"Vintage prints have a value all their own just because they are old. And if they've been taken care of properly, they have a collector's value and historic value all their own," Watson said.

The Getty purchased 97 images from the Watson family - stored with the prints of other great photographers of the last century.

"I think it's pretty neat that our stuff is up there with the sketches of Leonardo da Vinci and the paintings of Vincent van Gogh," Watson said. "The Getty is looking for art, and that doesn't necessary fit in with much of what we have here, which is news photography. But they did purchase some historic images by way of calling them art."

However, among the Getty's 97 vintage Watson prints - purchased for the historic value of how the print was made and how it printed rather then content - are images from all the Watson family photographers, including Daniel Watson.

Among the prints purchased by the Getty is a test shot made by George Watson of three men jumping in the air as he worked to synchronize flash powder with the camera lens (the first to do so).

Other prints include a photo shot by Garry Watson of Steven McQueen and his Ferrari, one by Coy Jr. of the body of Thema Todd (a popular American actress of the late 1920s and early 1930s whose early death remains a popular Hollywood mystery) and Harry's photo of MacArthur returning to the Philippines.

"The whole family is represented there - they actually bought a picture of mine, a Space Shuttle landing at Edwards Air Force Base. It was the first night landing in the 1980s," Watson said. "So a photo of mine is there in addition to at least one from all my uncles and my great-grandfather."

How many pictures?
Watson is unsure how many images are stored in the family archive.

"I've not taken the time to count them," he said.

However, he estimates hundreds of thousands at least, maybe more than a million. Images include print, glass plates, slides, negatives, 35 mm, 4x5 negatives, 120 film and digital. Watson's uncle Delmar believes the archive includes two million images.

"To me, I think it's neat to go to that drawer and pull out a picture of Buffalo Bill that my great-grandfather shot in 1903 and to digitize it now, more than 100 years later," Watson said.

Not all the images were shot by Watsons. Some were images sent to the archive by other news photographers who had heard of the collection, some reflect submissions to the Greater Los Angeles Press Photographers Association and some were obtained from extinct news services.

The Watson family received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in April 1999. The star is located at 6674 Hollywood Blvd. in Hollywood. They also have an ongoing exhibit at the Hollywood Heritage Museum (Lasky-De Mille Barn) on Highland Avenue north of Hollywood Boulevard. A sample of 97 of the Watson family's vintage pictures is part of the permanent collection of the Getty Museum.

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