By Michelle Trauring
Dawn M. Watson is not an easy woman to define. And she is impossible to compartmentalize.
Trust me. I would know.
Charismatic and effortlessly beautiful—seriously, no makeup needed to look fabulous—she is Hamptons Party Girl, a woman who charms everyone she meets with cool confidence. She would breeze in and out of the newsroom at The Southampton Press, where we first met six years ago, often stopping to chat with us reporters before heading to that evening’s slate of parties.
We jumped up and down, giggling like young girls, when she pulled me from the news game and hired me as her features writer. Over the next two years, I gained a newfound respect for Ms. Watson: professional journalist, photographer and editor who let me stretch my creative muscles as her right-hand gal, and dragged me to aforementioned parties.
I kid—kind of.
But there is another side of Ms. Watson that many people don’t see: simply Dawn, an introvert who gets lost in books, the adorable country bumpkin who dreamed of making it big in Manhattan someday—dreams she made a reality—and a woman who showed me a level of friendship I never expected.
She passed her torch to me when she resigned from The Southampton Press, and I have watched her career closely—even after following a path away from the East End myself. Her byline is more prevalent than ever, seen in half a dozen publications in the Hamptons alone — weekly in The Sag Harbor Express — and she has taken a new turn toward exhibiting her photography, on view starting Sunday at the Hampton Library in Bridgehampton.
We recently caught up over the telephone—a conversation that should have actually been over a bottle of wine (or two)—and talked about what makes her tick, her inspiration, and what brought her out to the East End more than a decade ago.
The Sag Harbor Express: Take me back to the beginning. What struck you about the East End when you first visited?
Dawn Watson: There’s such natural beauty, which one expects. But I think the thing that kept me so grounded in the East End, aside from the bucolic nature of the things I’m drawn to, are just the people—for sure the people. I was born in Indiana, I’ve lived all over—mostly New York and LA—but I’ve never been able to call a place home until I moved to the East End.
How did the East End compare to your roots in Indiana?
This is what I think is so funny. I looked through the things I take photos of and the things I am interested in, and it’s inevitably these very small-town, almost country slices of life, these small objects of beauty that are not about the hustle and bustle, or glitz and glamour of the Hamptons. They’re about quiet moments and the natural beauty that surrounds us.
So there’s a parallel there.
I think it’s very reflective of my upbringing in the Midwest, actually. The things I appreciate the most and the things I really cling to on the East End are things that most remind me of the simple pleasures of my childhood.
How many years were you in the city?
Less than 10. Eight, I think.
Did you like that change of pace from that small-town rural feel, or was it overwhelming?
Oh my God, I loved the city.
Of course you did.
I spent all of my high school years, all of my college years, all of my early 20s before I moved going, “I have to go to NYC. This is for me. Dawn Watson is New York City.” I’m reading the Post and reading about going to Elaine’s and all the people hob-nobbing around in the city and I’m like, this is where I need to be.
You were reading the Post in Indiana?
Oh, yeah. I was obsessed.
I can just picture you in your Dorothy costume (she donned the red slippers for a high school production of “The Wizard of Oz”) reading the New York Post.[She laughs] Oh, dear. I really was drawn to it. And then in my early 20s, I had a job that brought me to the city, finally. I was like, I’m moving here. I’m definitely moving here right now, and I did. My 24th birthday, I was there.
Did the city live up to your expectations?
Absolutely. Abso-freaking-lutely. Oh, I loved it. I loved the pace, this whole world that opened up to me that I had never before been aware of. I grew up thinking sushi was disgusting and why in the world would somebody waste money on bottled water. I thought I was very sophisticated and chic—and perhaps I was for Indiana. But I came to New York and it was a whole new world.
I used to kind of say I just, like, fell off the turnip truck. I was way, way overwhelmed and enamored by all the possibilities that New York presented.
At this point, were you practicing photography?
No! I’m an accidental photographer, for sure. I would take photos at parties and stuff, but I actually borrowed a Canon Sure Shot for my job at The Southampton Press, which brought me out to the Hamptons. It was, literally, one of those stupid little Sure Shots. Nobody could move; you had to take a picture of something stationary.
My very first big assignment was my second day on the job and a whale washed ashore in Quogue and I was a reporter in the western office under Frank Costanza. He sent me out. And I’m, like, in a long summer party dress and wedge heels, walking down the damn beach, holding up the hem of my dress with my shoes in my hand. And the funny thing is, when I took the job as a reporter, I was like, “God, please don’t let me have to cover a dead whale. Please don’t let a dead whale wash up,” because you know I’m an animal lover.
And it was literally my second day, and I’m there and I’m trekking down the beach and I’m sweaty, even though it’s April, and I walk up this big giant whale and the Riverhead Foundation is already doing a necropsy on this whale. And I swallowed my tears and my revulsion and I started snapping away because that’s the only thing I knew a reporter would do.
And I got into it! I see them cutting off chunks of the blubber to study it and stuff and I’m like, “Wow, this is cool.” I went back into the office and loaded the photos, and [photo editor] Dana Shaw said, “Those are some really good photos.” And that’s what made me realize I could be a reporter and I could maybe take some decent photos.
What made you take the jump from your life in the city to starting over, in a way, as a journalist?
I had a little bit of a cushion and I had always been a writer, and I had loved it. But I also knew writing was not lucrative. But I was at a place in my life where I could finally pursue my passion instead of just be a breadwinner. So, there was an ad for a reporter in the Press and I went for it. I was 35.
That’s a brave thing to do.
I had been a marketing person and I made a good amount of money in the past. And I was good at it and I liked it, but you know what? After I took that job at the Press, I loved to go to work. For somebody who is a Type-A, go-getting, ambitious person who wants to be good at whatever they do, to actually have that experience, it was revelatory.
Plus, you got to work with me.
Exactly. And I got to drink a lot of wine and go to a lot of parties, woo-hoo! “Hold my drink, Michelle!”
This is all going in. In other news, how many photos are in this show?
I think about 30. It’s landscapes and waterscapes. I take so many photos of so many people at so many parties, but for all of these photos, it’s not really about the people ever. It’s about the landscape.
It’s interesting that in a place like the Hamptons that is so obsessed with people, that this show is taking a step back from that and appreciating the nature.
I’m really drawn to the beauty of nature. I’ve been taking photos now for close to 15 years and I never really thought about that until I started looking at this archive of photos I’ve taken. I realized, oh, I like the natural beauty more than taking photos of famous people.
The photos that are included, are these shots taken mostly on the beat, or in your leisure time?
Mostly in my leisure time. It’s because of the travels of the job, for sure, and the access of the job. You know as well as I do, we get to cover so much space as journalists and we get to go places people never get to go.
I think it’s part of the East End that people don’t normally get to see or even stop to take a moment and view. I like that unspoiled, untouched aspect of where we live and it’s becoming less and less unspoiled and untouched, of course. Those are the things I like.
Can you give me an example?
There are three major stories that I tell in this show. One of them is that Montauk beach setting, and there are a half-dozen images from that shoot. There’s another story, photos taken from ferries. I’m obsessed with ferries. I would just ride the Shelter Island Ferry back and forth and back and forth all day. Seriously, I love it. It’s like when I was a kid and we’d go to the car wash and I’d sit and watch the car wash thing go around the car, which is, to me, almost the same as being on a rollercoaster. I love it. It’s like a ride.
So the third is, I have a very favorite special tree and I will pull off to the side of the road and take that picture whenever I pass, even if there’s a huge traffic jam. I’m obsessed with this tree. It’s really a thing. Unfortunately, none of the photos I’ve ever taken actually capture it as beautifully as it just exists in nature, but I’m going to keep tryin’.
It’s calming. It’s like what you would picture if you’re going to do some kind of yoga chant or maybe if you’re giving birth. It’s like finding your calming place. It’s beautiful. Do I sound like a crazy person?
No, but those are two opposite ends of the spectrum …
It’s just this natural soothing beauty.
Right. So, personally, when I look at these photos, I see a side of you in them that is a drastic departure from Hamptons Party Girl—the side of you who is super down-to-earth and absent from the local spotlight. They seem like the other side of your Type-A personality.
I think so. They’re much more quiet and reflective. They’re personal. I don’t know if anybody’s been with me when I’ve shot any of these photos. I’m always alone. I am a lone wolf, as you know. So I think the photos, probably in some real, actual identifiable sense, really speak to who I am in private and not who I am around other people. I don’t want to sound like I have split personalities, but that’s who I am.
I think that will be interesting for people to see who know the really social version of you to see another side.
The moody and complex side.
The mysterious Dawn M. Watson.
Dawn M. Watson, an enigma. [She laughs] Oh, dear.
Everything that I do, whether it is the public persona stuff or the quieter things I started off doing just for myself, it’s all a celebration of the East End. All of it. And I think if anybody ever says anything about me, whether it’s Dawn Watson or Hamptons Party Girl or journalist or photographer, I hope that in addition to them saying, “She’s a good egg,” I hope they would say, “She is the person I know who celebrates the East End more than anyone.”
“Blue, Green and East End All Over,” featuring photography by Dawn Watson, will open with a reception on Sunday, July 10, from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Hampton Library in Bridgehampton. The exhibition will remain on view through the end of August. For more information, call (631) 537-0015, or visit hamptonlibrary.org.