The Watson Family's L.A.: A Century of Photography in the City of Angels

Delmar Watson (back to camera) looks out over downtown Los Angeles. Courtesy of the Watson Family Photographic Archive.

Buffalo Bill Cody riding through downtown Los Angeles. Albert Einstein posing with Charlie Chaplin. A Magic Kingdom rising from the orange groves of Anaheim. These are a few of the rare scenes found in the Watson Family Photographic Archive, a treasure trove of historical photos compiled by four generations of Watson family news photographers.

The story of the Watson family begins with an Eastman Kodak camera that used 4x5 inch glass plates and a U.S. Army photography manual. Sometime before 1901, when Salvation Army missionaries James and Amy Watson relocated to Southern California, James taught himself to shoot photos -- a skill the family still practices professionally today, four generations later.

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But before they became a family of photographers the Watsons were a fixture in Los Angeles' young, booming motion picture industry. In 1911 James Watson's son Coy and his wife Golda made the rustic Los Angeles suburb of Edendale their home. The following year, Mack Sennett's Keystone studios moved into an abandoned grocery store two blocks down, and soon Coy began loaning his horses to the nearby film productions, often appearing himself as a rider in costume. He later worked with props and special effects, engineering the famous magic carpet scene in Douglas Fairbanks' 1924 film, "The Thief of Baghdad."

Meanwhile, Coy Watson's nine children -- six boys and three girls -- followed their father into the movies. At first, producers in need of a young actor approached Watson, knowing of his large family. He'd then select the appropriate child based on the age and gender called for by the role. Later, Watson became a full-time manager for his children as the demand for child actors grew. One of his sons, Delmar, appeared in more than 300 films, including "Heidi," in which he shared the screen with Shirley Temple. Another son, Bobs, starred as Pee Wee in "Boys Town" with Mickey Rooney and Spencer Tracy. Daughter Vivian made her big screen debut in a William Selig picture when she was only six weeks old. In all, the Watsons appeared in more than 1,000 films.

Though as children they earned fame for the work in front of the camera, five of Coy's six sons -- Coy Jr., Harry, Billy, Delmar, and Garry -- established their adult careers behind it. The other son, Bobs, remained an actor into his middle age before becoming a Methodist minister, but he, too, dabbled in news photography. The Watson brothers' inspiration: their uncle George.

George Watson became the Los Angeles Times' first full-time staff photographer in 1917. Two years later, he climbed into a biplane with a World War I fighter pilot and took the first news photographs (and perhaps the first photographs, period) of Los Angeles from an airplane.

Like their uncle, the Watson brothers began shooting photos of Los Angeles for local newspapers, including the Times, Daily News, and Mirror. Some carried the family legacy into a new medium with the rise of television news in the 1950s. The Watsons captured a city of movie stars, sports heroes, and industrial triumphs -- and of murders, kidnappings, and corruption. Through their lenses the Watsons saw farmland give way to suburbs and watched freeways split communities. The third generation of Watson photographers hung up their cameras long ago, but a representative of the fourth, Daniel Watson, continues the tradition as a photographer for the Santa Clarita Valley Signal.

Founded by Delmar Watson in 1967, the Watson Family Photographic Archive has preserved the combined output of the Watson family photographers -- roughly one million prints and negatives in all. The breadth of its coverage and the uniqueness of its images make the Watson Family Photographic Archive an indispensable visual record of 20th-century Los Angeles. Since Delmar Watson's death in 2008, his wife Antoinette Watson and his nephew Daniel have continued the work of sorting through and organizing the massive collection. They make new discoveries all the time.

William 'Buffalo Bill' Cody rides down Broadway in downtown Los Angeles, 1903. In this photo taken by his father James Watson, 11-year-old George Watson is the barefoot boy walking behind Cody's carriage. Courtesy of the Watson Family Photographic Archive.

Physicist Albert Einstein and filmmaker Charlie Chaplin at the Hollywood Bowl premiere of 'City Lights,' 1931. Courtesy of the Watson Family Photographic Archive.

The Four-Level interchange takes shape behind City Hall, ca.1948. Courtesy of the Watson Family Photographic Archive.

Tens of thousands of Boy Scouts attended a jamboree on the Irvine Ranch in Orange County in 1953. Courtesy of the Watson Family Photographic Archive.

In 1955, Delmar Watson was invited to photograph Disneyland under construction, resulting in a rare series of images of the unfinished park. Courtesy of the Watson Family Photographic Archive.

Slurry-sealing the Disneyland parking lot in Anaheim. Courtesy of the Watson Family Photographic Archive.

A composite photograph showing Los Angeles City Hall, the Four Level interchange, and two members of the Watson family. Courtesy of the Watson Family Photographic Archive.

An undated oblique aerial photo of downtown Los Angeles at Eighth and Broadway. Courtesy of the Watson Family Photographic Archive.

George Watson (far left) and the six Watson brothers with their cameras. Courtesy of the Watson Family Photographic Archive.

About the Author

A writer specializing in Los Angeles history, Nathan Masters serves as manager of academic events and programming communications for the USC Libraries, the host institution for L.A. as Subject.
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