Veteran Signal photographer Dan Watson retires

Dan Watson, center, holds the Ruth Newhall Lifetime Achievement Award on Tuesday, July 9 at the City Council Meeting with Mayor Cameron Smyth, center right, and councilmembers Marsha McLean, left, Jason Gibbs, center left, Laurene Weste, center right and Bill Miranda. Habeba Mostafa/ The Signal
Dan Watson, center, holds the Ruth Newhall Lifetime Achievement Award on Tuesday, July 9 at the City Council Meeting with Mayor Cameron Smyth, center right, and councilmembers Marsha McLean, left, Jason Gibbs, center left, Laurene Weste, center right and Bill Miranda. Habeba Mostafa/ The Signal

City Council honors his two decades covering the community 

By Stephen K. Peeples 
For The Signal 

After nearly 20 years as The Signal’s award-winning chief photojournalist and photo editor, Dan Watson officially retired on Saturday, June 15, and the Santa Clarita City Council marked the milestone with a special proclamation at City Hall on Tuesday night. 

Watson served three tours at The Signal: 1998-2003, 2009-2017, and 2018-2024. That’s more than 19 years behind the lens documenting and illustrating life in the Santa Clarita Valley for the venerable newspaper of record. 

Now, for the first time Watson can remember, there’s no more Pavlovian urge to leap into action every time he hears the wail of a first responder’s siren.  

“Ah, isn’t that great? I don’t have to run to that,” he said gleefully at the end of June. “I feel like a cloud has been lifted off me. I don’t even want to pick up a camera for a while.” 

For someone who’s been handling cameras since he could crawl, that’s remarkable.  

Fourth-Generation Photojournalist 
Watson, 67, grew up in the media business in Burbank and Los Angeles. A longtime Castaic resident, he represents the fourth – and last – generation of actors, photographers, photojournalists, and newsreel-TV cameramen renowned since the 1930s as “The First Family of Hollywood,” as documented by his uncle Delmar’s now-rare 1975 book “Quick, Watson, The Camera.” 

Dan and his aunt Antoinette were the last keepers of the massive Watson Family Photographic Archive, which aggregated the millions of still photos and miles of newsreel footage shot by Dan’s great-grandfather James, grandfather Coy, great-uncle George, five uncles, and his father Garry, documenting life in Los Angeles and other major historical events from 1888 through the 20th century. 

Dan Watson learned what (and what not) to do as a professional photographer from his family and classes at Luther Burbank Junior High School and John Burroughs High School, where he was the school’s most-published photographer, and the Burbank Daily Review published some of his work in a special section. 

Watson’s photographic career was off and running just out of high school in 1976 when he landed a gig as the track photographer at Hollywood Park. The following year, he started his community news career as a staff photographer for the Valley News and Green Sheet. 

Between 1980 and 1983, he shot for the Burbank Leader/Glendale News-Press, the Santa Anita racetrack, and CBS Photo before a brief stint as a track photographer in Minnesota. 

In 1984 Watson began an 18-year run freelancing for ABC-TV. From 1994 to 1996 he also served as the staff photographer for the Natural History Museum at Exposition Park. 

“I took the Signal job in 1998 because I always liked small community news and wanted to learn computers,” Watson said in a 2019 interview. “The daily (photo) shooting – I like finding the features around the valley, meeting interesting people, the veterans, the older people, and the daily sports. I like to shoot all that stuff.” 

On assignment for The Signal, Watson always eschewed the public eye, preferring to discreetly document whatever he was covering without insinuating himself into the story.  

Watson has also disdained professional attention and accolades with authentic humility. Though he has won numerous photography awards over the past five decades, he has no idea how many. “I never kept track,” he said. 

Between his Signal stints, Watson worked for the Los Angeles Times (Community News, Glendale) and freelanced extensively for the Los Angeles Daily News, along with co-managing and eventually re-homing the Watson Family Photographic Archive. 

The Signal: Third Time’s a Charm 

But Dan Watson always returned to The Signal, as he did six years ago this summer as a staff photographer. 

“I was grateful to be hired back by Richard Budman when he bought the paper in 2018,” said Watson, who’d been laid off by The Signal’s previous owner in a downsizing the year before.  

“Many photographers I worked with over the years were laid off and had to tend bar or do other jobs, probably for more money,” he said. “But I have been very fortunate to have always been a photographer, the only thing I was good at.” 

“Photography is in Dan’s blood,” Budman said. “You can teach somebody the mechanics, but you can’t teach them to have an eye. Dan has that skill. But what makes him a great photographer is how he interacts with people to get a great shot. Dan is like an actor. Around the office, he’s a normal great guy, but when he goes out to a shoot, he comes alive. He’ll joke with people, spend time with kids. Just the way he can get people to relax is amazing.” 

“If you talk to anyone in the community, they’ll tell you what a good guy Dan is, but also how he is just a consummate professional,” said Tim Whyte, The Signal’s managing editor when the paper hired Watson the first time. Whyte also rejoined The Signal after Budman purchased it in mid-2018 and is now editor-in-chief. 

“For me as an editor, Dan’s automatic,” Whyte said. “If I see on a photo assignment that he shot the art, I know I’m going to have really good art. That’s not only skill, but also talent. We were blessed to have Dan here for as many years as we did.” 

Why Retire Now? 

Two things prompted Watson to call it a career now: his wife Candy’s recent retirement and the deaths of two close friends, also photographers. 

“They died in the last few months,” Watson said. “It was always, ‘We’re going to have lunch next week? Oh, I’ve got to work.’ So that just really hit me. 

“And my poor wife has put up with this for almost 43 years now (they married on Nov. 14, 1981). That takes a certain kind of person. I didn’t do much of the late-night stuff recently, but my whole career, when we were in a bowling league, I’d always get there late. Or I couldn’t show up at all because there was a murder or a fire. Our life has been that way and she’s always been there, always been very supportive and patient.” 

Watson said Candy worked in banking for many years. “She worked her way up from a teller to mortgage to reverse mortgage and retired a couple of years ago. I couldn’t have done this job without her financial assistance and moral support all these years.” 

Now, Watson’s only assignment is to catch up with his wife and their two grown daughters (Jennie and Missy, both professionals but in other “non-pro” fields) and spend more time with his father and primary photographic mentor, Garry Watson, now 96, who lives nearby. 

Dan Watson is presented with the Ruth Newhall Lifetime Achievement Award on Tuesday, July 9 at the City Council Meeting. Habeba Mostafa/ The Signal

City Council Commemoration 

“When Dan told me he was retiring, he said he didn’t want a big fanfare, a story, didn’t want any hubbub,” Budman said. “But I thought he should have some recognition.”  

So, Budman contacted Councilman Jason Gibbs and asked if the City Council could honor Watson with a proclamation, which they agreed was much deserved, and scheduled it for June 11. 

The usually even-tempered Watson soon heard about it and expressed discomfort at first, Budman said. But after he spoke with a few other former Signal colleagues, Watson warmed up to the presentation – if it could be rescheduled, because his wife was out of town. So, the council postponed the presentation to Tuesday night’s meeting. 

One more surprise awaited, though, for the retiring photographer: Also on Tuesday night, The Signal and SCVTV partnered to present Watson with the Ruth Newhall Lifetime Achievement Award, which was created in the 1990s by the then-SCV Press Club to recognize individuals for exemplary service to the First Amendment.  

“Photographers don’t seem to get the acclaim reporters do, because the reporters are up front, writing the story,” Budman said. “Photographers are an important part of every story, but they tend to be in the background, and that suited Dan’s personality.” 

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