He made the news click
Posted by donraymedia on May 17, 2009
An oral history interview that became a magazine article
(First published in Westways, February, 1977)
By Don Ray
George Watson never anticipated being regarded as a historian. Photography was his career, hobby and best friend. From 1910, when his first news photograph was published, until her retired during World War II, George’s only concern was that of capturing news.
Although his photographs lost their news value only days after he shot them, their historical value continues to appreciate with each passing generation. The colorful history of twentieth-century Southern California has been preserved in Watson’s collection of news photographs, numbering in the thousands, taken by him and his six nephews, all photojournalists.
Aside from being the dean of Southern California news photographers, the octogenarian’s credits included the invention of the first microfilm machine, the first aerial news photographs of Los Angeles, the first picture ever transmitted over telephone wires and the invention of a prototype of the Pako dryer, a print-drying machine used today in almost every photography lab.
He also founded and was the first president of the Los Angeles Press Photographers Association, an organization that continues to promote respect and dignity among “photogs.”
George Railton Watson befriended photography more than seventy-six years ago when his father, and amateur photographer, bought him a one-dollar Brownie camera for his eighth birthday. The boy developed and printed his first picture, a shot of the Colorado state capitol, and proudly displayed it to the proprietor of the local Eastman Kodak Company agency.
The dealer immediately placed the picture in his shop window above a sign that read, “If an eight-year-old boy can
take a picture like this, why can’t you?” When the family moved to Los Angeles a year later, the young lensman built his own darkroom out of a dry-goods box, using a coal oil lantern for a red light.
“It’s a wonder I didn’t asphyxiate myself,” George recalls. “I’d come out sweatin’ like the devil, but I’d have my prints.”
After spending most of his teens in the Pacific Northwest, George returned to Los Angeles in 1917. Experience gained taking pictures for the Portland Journals was all he needed to land a job with the Los Angeles Times as their second field photographer. In his twelve years with the Times, he witnessed and photographed nearly every major news story — every disaster, murder, visiting king, queen and president.
He rubbed elbows with the silent-screen stars, sports greats, explorers, adventurers and criminals who made the news.
George learned quickly that working for the press would not always be pleasant. The first time he was assigned to photograph a murder scene he had an experience that nearly sent him looking for another profession. The reporter with whom he worked asked him to get a few shots of a man who was slain by police after he killed his wife.
George entered the room but it was dark and he was unable to find the light switch. While feeling his way around the room he tripped and fell on the body. He remembers how his hair stood on end when he lit a match and saw the corpse.
“I said to myself, ‘If you’re going to be a news photographer you can’t get scared of a dead man.’ I thought, ‘What I have to do is touch this character ’cause he can’t hurt me — he’s dead.’ So I took a deep breath and I touched the guy. Then I was calm.”
In 1927 George covered nearly every angle of an even more horrendous crime. William Edward Hickman, an eighteen-year-old prospective ministry student, kidnapped twelve-year-old Marion Parker. Hickman sent a handwritten note to the girl’s father, a banker, and demanded a $1,500 ransom. Her father responded to the note, indicating he wanted to see his daughter alive before he would pay.
Hickman, who called himself “The Fox,” sent Mr. Parker detailed instructions. As planned, young Hickman drove past the girl’s father with Marion in the car. Mr. Parker released the ransom money when he recognized his daughter in the darkness. The kidnapper took the money, drove a few blocks and dropped off Marion’s body, dismembered and mutilated, wrapped in a blanket. Her lifeless eyes were wired open for the morbid rendezvous.
George was one of many newsmen from all over the country who crowded into the coroner’s office at the time of Marion’s autopsy. The hard-nosed coroner demanded that all photographers and reporters leave the room before he would uncover the body. George acted quickly and, within minutes, convinced the sheriff’s department captain that pictures would be necessary at the trial. Newly appointed Deputy Sheriff George R. Watson took the only pictures of the Parker girl. He was later subpoenaed to testify at the Hickman trial.
The police arrested Hickman after cashing some of the marked ransom bills in Oregon. He became very friendly with George. After a jury convicted Hickman of first-degree murder and the judge sentenced him to die, the young man kiddingly gave George a rubber cigar. Later in an old warehouse near San Quentin, George witnessed the eighteen-year-old’s execution. He recalls how the boy looked up at the thirteen steps leading to the gallows. George watched, silently remembering the invitation the young man had given him to “attend my necktie party.”
Watson was on the scene countless times to get exclusive shots that would “scoop the world.” He gives much of the credit to the teamwork of the newspaper staff. One example of such teamwork occurred on March 13, 1928, shortly after midnight when a phone call from the Times switchboard operator awakened him. She had been trying to reach her correspondents in Fillmore and Piru, California, but the telephone lines were apparently down.
She told George she thought the St. Francis Dam had collapsed. He rushed up there on her tip. The St. Francis Dam had been filled to capacity for the first time since its completion two years earlier and had, indeed, collapsed. It killed more than 450 people. A wall of water, sometimes 200 feet high, destroyed all or part of all the cities along the Santa Clara River.
George arrived on the scene before dawn and captured 0n film Southern California’s worst disaster. The water was still pouring down from San Francisquito Canyon where the wall of water had washed away 400 homes. When George wasn’t taking pictures he was assisting in the massive rescue operation. He watched William Mulholland, head of the Los Angeles Bureau of Water Works and Supply, nearly collapse from agony when he surveyed the damage cause by the dam he had built.
George followed the army of workers who searched the rubble between Saugus and Ventura for survivors. The teamwork of the newspaper staff had enabled George to record the aftermath of the disaster.
A breakdown in teamwork, though, sometimes cost a newsman a world-wide exclusive. George was working for Acme News Picture Service, the forerunner of United Press International wire service, when Los Angeles hosted the 1932 Olympic Games. He and his comrades had a chance to get the first shots of the opening-day ceremonies.
Teamwork was necessary to get the pictures developed and delivered to the single telephone photowire before any other newsmen. The rule was “whoever gets there first holds the wire until he runs out of pictures to send.”
The word was out that some other photographers had rigged an ambulance with developing tanks in which they would develop their shots while speeding to the telephoto wire. George’s crew quickly came up with a counter plan. An off0duty motorcycle policeman would be ready at Tunnel No. 8 to escort George’s car to the wire. Three developing tanks were ready in his car.
He reminded the policeman to be there on time, “’cause the biggest race of these Olympics isn’t going to be on the field. It’ll be on the streets!”
When the pictures were taken and the race for the wire began, the motorcyclist was not at Tunnel No. 8. George lost out to the ambulance. Their rivals had scooped the world.
“When I found the policeman later that night, I explained to him exactly what the situation was. I said, ‘This job requires timing. It’s all timing. Now you be there tomorrow!'” The following day George had his car running. His partner ran alongside and handed him the exposed film. Then the motorcycle officer turned on his red lights and siren and led the car, through signals and traffic, toward the wire. George and his comrades monopolized the photowire for the rest of the Olympic Games.
In remembering the incident more than forty years later, George shook his head and chuckled, “An ambulance just couldn’t drive on the sidewalks.”
When an earthquake hit Southern California in 1933, George called all of his Los Angeles County correspondents in hopes of finding the hardest-hit area of town. When he got through to every city except Long Beach, he assumed that the quake’s epicenter must have been there. He sent one of his best photographers, Paul Strite, out to get the first pictures. However, the roads were all blocked to the public. Paul saw a young motorcyclist dressed in a Western Union uniform get through the lines.
No one knows where the photographer got them, but, within minutes, Paul rode a motorcycle into Long Beach wearing a Western Union outfit. In the meantime,” recalls Watson, “I found out that’s where the main quake was and I thought we’d get some good pictures. But I wanted to hold the telephoto wire, so I went back to the newspaper’s morgue and got some old negatives of the San Jacinto earthquake. I soaked them up in developer to get them good and soppy and slimy and all. I marked out any automobile license numbers and went to the telephoto office and filed ten pictures.
“They had a new operator on — now this was a dirty trick. I filed these pictures and began to say, ‘That’s pretty light. I don’t think thiss’ll transmit. We’d better make it over a little bit darker.’ I kept stalling. Pretty soon I was sweating. I was wondering when my photographer would come in with some actual pictures.
“In the meantime, a couple of photographers from the New York Times Wide World come and and had some pretty good shots. Then an Associate Press photog cam in with some dandies. When they saw me they wondered how I’d gotten there so quickly. Finally Paul Strite came in with some graphic shots of a ruined four-story building with sheets tied and hung together and cars covered with bricks.
“I grabbed Paul’s pictures and said to the operator. ‘Hey, wait a minute! This is a better picture,’ and went down the line as the other fellows looked at me kind of funny. I got all the pictures transmitted and scooped the world.” In all of his stalling, George believes one of the old San Jacinto quake pictures may have been transmitted over the wires.
Watson became well known for his ability to get pictures where cameras weren’t allowed. He developed a camera small enough to fit in his cap and would shoot it from his lap. Judges were tormented when scenes from their courtrooms were graphically captured in pictures.
Even after people became aware of his little cap, with a trapdoor large enough for the camera lens, he still managed to slip past security men by outsmarting them.
When Rudolph Valentino died at age thirty-one, many photographers showed up at the funeral. They were all banned from taking cameras in the chapel. Knowing that he, in particular, was being watched, George overtly leaned his large camera and the tripod against an outside wall. The security men probably sighed in relief as he entered the building without it. The next morning, George’s exclusive interior shots were seen in print by millions.
Although he was best known as a clever and inventive news photographer, he was also respected as a humanitarian. This trait earn him the friendship of the world’s greatest all-around athlete, Jim Thorpe. Years after “Indian Jim” had been stripped of his six Olympic gold medals for having been involved in semiprofessional baseball, George Watson received a phone tip that Jim Thorpe was seen digging a ditch in the Los Angeles area.
George followed the lead and came upon a man resembling Thorpe. He first shot a picture of the ditch digger and then asked him if her were in fact Jim Thorpe.
The ashamed native American denied his true identity. George tried to assure Jim that he was a photographer for the wire service and could possibly help him. George backed up his assurances by giving Thorpe nationwide publicity — publicity that resulted in numerous requests for personal appearances, job offers and parts in movies. The friendship between the two never ended.
At age eighty-four, George still appreciates good photography. Aside from his family collection of photographs, he has saved hundreds of pictures that other photographers made long after Watson retired. With his nephew, Delmar Watson, he compiled and published a book of selected Watson photographs, “Quick, Watson, the Camera”: Seventy-five Years of News Photography. Although the faces and events differ from those of today, the basics and stratagems of news photography have changed little over the years.
“A photographer has to have a lot of guts,” explains Watson, “and he has to know how to use a camera properly. A camera to a photographer is like an easel to an artist or a typewriter to a writer. It’s just a means of expression. An news photographer must have an instinct for news and then must develop that instinct. It can’t be learned in a book.”