By Kara Thompson,
Special to the AFRO

Legendary photographer Irving H. Phillips Jr. died Dec. 22 of end-stage renal failure at Loch Raven VA Medical Center in Baltimore. 

He was 79 years old.

Phillips was born in Baltimore to I. Henry Phillips Sr. and Laura Mackay Phillips. He got his start in photography through the AFRO, where he and multiple family members cut a name for themselves as media professionals. Phillips honed his skills as a member of Black Press and then went on to break barriers as the first Black news photographer for the Baltimore Sun.

“One of my brother’s favorite sayings was capturing the moment,” said his sister, Laura Phillips Byrd. “He always said that a photograph captured the moment and you could never recapture it.”

His cousin, Benjamin Murphy Phillips, viewed him as a mentor, and recalls learning photography tips from him while he was in high school. 

“By blood we were first cousins, but he was my brother,” Benjamin Phillips said. “He was very specific on certain things. And if he disagreed, which he could do, we could get into some interesting discussions, but it was always out of love because he wanted us to be as good as we could be, and even better.”

Phillips’ love for photography grew as he reached adulthood, and he followed in the footsteps of his father, who also served the AFRO as a photographer for many years.

In addition to his passion for photography, Phillips enjoyed the theater, both going to see shows and acting in some himself. 

“In ninth grade, my husband was a member of St. Edward’s Catholic Youth Organization, and he was in a play that was produced or staged by the kids at St. Edward Church,” said his wife, Clarice Scriber Phillips. “He won Best Actor for the Archdiocese of Baltimore—this would have been in the 1950s—and that would have been remarkable.”

Phillips was also an avid swimmer. 

“He was a big-time swimmer,” Byrd said. “He could move through the water.”

“You could tell it was something that just came natural,” his son, Webster Phillips, said. “He would dive in and go to a couple of lengths back and forth down the pool doing that kind of stuff that you wouldn’t see most folks do at a backyard pool.”

Phillips attended Baltimore City College, and then Morgan State University, swimming competitively at both schools. His best events were the 100-meter freestyle and mile-long swim. 

“He always told me stories about [how] he swam the mile,” Webster said. “They would have an intermission, people would go outside, go to the concession stand, go smoke a cigarette and then come back and he’d still be swimming.”

Phillips was drafted into the Vietnam War in 1965, where he served until 1967.

Shown here, Irving H. Phillips Jr. during his time as a soldier in Vietnam. (Photo by Facebook/Marty Williams)

“We have a photo of him shaving out of his helmet. The helmet’s full of water and he’s sitting by some tents, shaving,” Webster said. “The guys would mess with him because he would get a lot of mail because the AFRO did a thing where they posted his picture and they said, ‘Hey, this is Irv Phillips, our photographer who went away to Vietnam. If you want to write him, you can write him.’”

After returning from Vietnam, he journeyed into the American South to cover the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders. When the riots broke out across the nation after King’s assassination, Phillips was there to capture the anger on film as it rippled across the country.

“There was a lot going on Gay Street, but when the rioters saw [that] they [the photographers] were Black, they were more receptive to them taking pictures,” Byrd said. “He wasn’t afraid, he just captured everything.”

Phillips was hired by the Baltimore Sun in 1969, becoming the first Black news photographer at the paper.

“He would tell me when he first came there and people would [mess] with his film and move stuff,” Webster said. “He always had people here and there that would hate on him, but for the most part he had good relationships with folks there.” 

It was there that he met his wife, Clarice Scriber, who was working in public relations. Although they did not interact much at the Sun, as she was not on the news team like Phillips, they began talking outside of work and began a relationship.They married in April 1978. 

“He was a very outgoing and friendly person,” Scriber said. 

They had one son, Irving Henry Webster Phillips III, who was born in January 1980.

Phillips’ son shares his love of photography, something he learned by watching his father at work.

“He changed his schedule to work the Sun paper on Saturday, so I started going out with him every Saturday and was kind of just being on the job with him. That was really where it became something. I started to really understand this concept a little bit more,” Webster said. 

Phillips’ knowledge of Baltimore helped him on his assignments, which in turn helped him expand what and who he knew.

“He loved Baltimore. And he would tell you things about Baltimore, what happened in Baltimore, when it happened and show you all the different places,” Benjamin Phillips said. “In that same time, because of his experience and exposure, he knew a lot of folks in Baltimore. So, it was like the city was his playground.”

Irving H. Phillips was an esteemed AFRO photographer, just like his father, I. Henry Phillips Sr. and his uncle, Frank W. Phillips Jr., before him. (Photo Courtesy of Facebook_Maria Broom)

Webster recalled going with his father one time to cover former Senator Barbara Mikulski speaking at an event. Phillips pointed out to his son that she was standing on a milk crate behind the podium in order to be tall enough to reach the microphone. He then called out to her about the milk crate, in order to get her smile for his picture.

“He brought his personality to everything that he did,” Webster said. “A big part of why he ended up with a lot of dynamic photos was just being in the moment.” 

Benjamin Phillips agreed.

“The greatest thing about him was his personality and his photographic skills,” he said. “He had a way of capturing pictures that were so unique.”

While at the Sun, Phillips covered many prominent actors and athletes such as Reggie Jackson, Vida Blue, and Cicely Tyson. 

Years after he retired from the Sun in 1993, he taught photography at Highlandtown Middle School in Baltimore, Md.

“Mr. Phillips admired teachers a great deal,” said Scriber. “The principal at Highlandtown Middle knew him and knew his work and invited him to join the faculty as a teacher of photography.”

After retiring from teaching, he would occasionally pick up some freelance work. But his camera was never too far away. He loved to shoot pictures of his friends and family just hanging out. 

“He would say, ‘when you take a photograph, you stop that moment in history forever,’” Webster said. “You’re never getting that second, that minute, hour again.”

A memorial service will be held sometime in the spring where, according to Byrd, Phillips wanted a jazz trio to play.

“He loved jazz, live music, and very much, enjoyed that in his youth,” said his wife. “He would go to New York to listen to live music, We used to go on occasion to DC to listen to music.”

Phillips is survived by his wife, Clarice Scriber, his son Webster, and his two sisters, Laura Phillips Byrd and Sheila Phillips Major. He is predeceased by his father, I. Henry Phillips Sr., his mother, Laura Mackay Phillips and both of his brothers, Frank W. Phillips III and Martin M. Phillips.

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