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For the Phillips family, 70 years of capturing Baltimore's African-American experience

Three generations of Phillips family photographers help bring Baltimore's black community into focus

There's Billie Holiday, ducking out of a West Baltimore store with a brown paper bag tucked under her arm. There's a shapely young woman in a bikini, standing alongside a vintage Cadillac and talking on a 1950s-era car phone. There are kids, playing in the streets.

For 70 years, three generations of the Phillips family have been capturing Baltimore's black community with their cameras. Their work has frozen in time the glory years of Pennsylvania Avenue, when it was a center of African-American arts and culture; the struggles of the civil rights era, when Baltimore and other cities wrestled with the demands of a people tired of being shunned to the back of the bus; and the everyday lives of everyday people, proud of their communities and anxious to leave their children something better.

In honor of Black History Month, more than 30 photographs from the Phillips family archives are on view in the exhibit "You & I. Henry: A Journey Through Baltimore and Beyond from Behind the Lens of Three Generations" at Baltimore's City Hall through March 13. The collection begins around 1946, when Irving Henry Phillips started working for the Baltimore Afro-American; continues through the '70s and '80s, when his son, Irving Henry Phillips Jr., was a staff photographer for The Baltimore Sun; and extends into the present, as his grandson, Irving Webster Phillips III, continues refining the eye for detail that his father and grandfather left him.

"What really grabbed me was just the images of regular life in Baltimore, in the African-American community," says Jeanne Davis, curator for City Hall and one of the main proponents for putting the photographs on exhibit. "Most of them are of people playing in the streets, hanging out, in a barber shop, a woman lounging by someone's car. People who see this are going to relate a lot more to that, will be able to see what life was like back then, what has changed."

Sitting in the converted East Baltimore warehouse that Webster Phillips uses as a work space, the two younger members of the family — Henry Phillips Sr. died in 1993 at 73 — are clearly proud of their legacy. In some ways, they've chronicled the black experience in America throughout the past three-quarters of a century, Irving Phillips Jr. notes, following up with hard-to-dispute proof: his father once shot a photo of a weeping Coretta Scott King, the wife of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He took a picture of her crying at her husband's 1968 funeral. And decades later, his son captured her crying while being paid tribute by the Congressional Black Caucus in Washington.

"We knew what we were shooting was important," he says of the work of three generations of his family. "My father, he put it into me. He would talk about how great these guys were. So I realized it."

As if to emphasize the continuing thread their work represents, all three share not only the same photographic muse, but the same name as well. Each was christened Irving Henry Webster Phillips; to lessen the confusion, each has gone by one part of their given name.

Both Irving and Webster look with awe at Henry's work. Fresh out of the Army following World War II, Henry went to work for the Afro-American, documenting a side of Baltimore most of the mainstream press overlooked.

Henry's photos capture that time movingly, from photos of Orioles first baseman Bob Boyd at spring training to a chorus of showgirls surrounding a tuxedo-clad piano player to a beaming young woman sitting alongside her horse on a country fence.

"That was the whole thing," says Irving Phillips, 71, who left The Sun in 1993 after 24 years with the paper. "He'd always say to me, 'You've got to capture the moment. Don't let them get away from you.'

"He knew how important it was, what the Afro was doing. He knew nobody else was doing what he was doing. That's why he saved every damn thing he ever shot."

Webster, 35, nods in agreement. He's spent the past several years scanning as many of his grandfather's photographs as possible, in preparation for making them available online. He's done more than 10,000, and probably isn't a fifth of the way done yet.

"It's pretty much lime time traveling," he says. "It's like I've been pretty much everywhere he's ever been — because everywhere he went, he took a photograph. I've basically seen everything he ever saw. It's crazy."

Irving also got his start at the Afro. And like his dad, he started as a photojournalist after a war — in his case, following two years as a radio operator and radio teletypist in Vietnam.

Irving's work for The Sun extended well beyond the black community; he was responsible for some of the most iconic images of Baltimore's sports teams to come out of the period. But his portfolio includes memorable images of children's advocate "Aunt Mary" Dobkin and her kids' baseball team, of exultant Edmondson High School students receiving their diplomas.

"Even today, I get excited about it," Irving Phillips says of his career as a photojournalist. "I was glad I was there to record it."

So should the people living in Baltimore in 2015, says Chris Metzger, who teaches computer graphics and digital photography at Morgan State University and has been working with Webster Phillips in a years-long project aimed at getting these photographs in front of young eyes, so they can see what their hometown was like back in the day.

"We're incredibly fortunate to have these photographs," says Metzger, calling the work of the three Phillipses an "incredible social archive and reference." And while the photographs of people like Ray Charles, Jackie Robinson, Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Louis in their primes may get people's immediate attention, the shots of everyday life may be even more valuable, at least from a cultural standpoint.

"You really get to see what a family's house looked like in the 1950s, especially a black family's house in the 1950s," he says. "You have lots of families, communities, neighborhoods that they were able to document and showcase.

"Just look at the shots of Pennsylvania Avenue. It was the place for arts and entertainment for the black community. Just being able to look at images from that period — to see people out on the street, people appreciating their community, that's what impressed me the most."

(As part of his effort to get the photographs in front of a new audience, Webster Phillips has scheduled a pair of workshops, 3 p.m.-7 p.m. Feb. 9 and 23 at the Downtown Cultural Arts Center, 401 N. Howard St. With luck, he's hoping some attendees with long memories may recognize and help identify the people in the photographs.)

Webster Phillips agrees; many young people today, he says, may not appreciate the Baltimore of their parents' and grandparents' day. "We were showing some kids images, and it was like, their jaws dropped. They didn't know what their communities looked like, 20-30 years ago. No one's ever showed them. It opened up a whole new conversation about how it was, how it got to where it is now."

Although he's not a full-time photojournalist like his father and grandfather, Webster Phillips has more than kept the tradition going. Since learning how to shoot pictures while going out on assignment with his father, he's been published in the Afro and other area papers. He's had photographs exhibited at Baltimore's Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture.

He's also very aware of his role as the trustee of his father's and grandfather's legacies, Webster Phillips says. And like them, he appreciates how important the work is.

"Really, the first thing that I thought of, from looking at some of those photos that Henry shot — 'Did he ever know?' And I feel like he did know, because of the way he kept stuff. There'd be pictures of clotheslines in backyards, stray dogs, stuff that would never make it to the newspaper. And he kept all of it."

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If you go

"You & I. Henry: A Journey Through Baltimore and Beyond from Behind the Lens of Three Generations," is on view now through March 13 at the City Hall Courtyard Galleries, 100 N. Holliday St. Free.