Irving Henry Webster Phillips Jr., The Baltimore Sun’s first Black news photographer who shot Cal Ripken’s first home run and Johnny Unitas’ last game, as well as the 1968 riots, died of end-stage renal failure Dec. 22 at Loch Raven VA Medical Center. He was 79.
Born in Baltimore, he was the son of I. Henry Phillips Sr., a newspaper photographer at The Baltimore Afro-American, and Laura Mackay Phillips, a homemaker and later the newspaper’s librarian.
When Mr. Phillips was 7 years old, his parents took advantage of the G.I. Bill to move their family from Gilmor Homes to a new rowhome on Whitmore Avenue in the Rosemont neighborhood.
He attended School 144 and Booker T. Washington Junior High School and was its ninth grade class president. He was a 1961 graduate of Baltimore City College.
At City College and later at Morgan State University, Mr. Phillips was a competitive swimmer who swam the mile.
He was a member of Saint Edward Roman Catholic Church and active in the Catholic Youth Organization (CYO).
In the ninth grade, he played the lead in a CYO play and won first prize in a Baltimore Archdiocese competition.
“The competition was open to all the city, and in the mid-1950s Baltimore, such an honor was remarkable for an African American to win,” said his sister Laura P. Byrd. “My brother was fearless on stage and had a hidden emotional, loving side. He connected with audiences — and he connected with all people too, outside of theater.”
Mr. Phillips’ father and uncle at The Afro-American introduced him to photography.
He was drafted into the Army and assigned initially to an aerial photography unit. After basic training, Mr. Phillips was held over for several days and then sent to radio-teletype school.
Mr. Phillips told his family the assignment switch was due to his race. He was then deployed to the First Infantry and served in Vietnam for 14 months.
After serving in the military, Mr. Phillips returned to a photographer’s job at The Afro-American.
He later recalled that he covered Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the South.
“The Afro, they sent me down South. We’d go into a church where they were having those voter registration drives. They’d have Hosea Williams speak, and then Jesse Jackson, then Andy Young, Ralph Abernathy and then Dr. King,” Mr. Phillips said in a 2015 Baltimore Sun story.
He was 24 years old when a 1968 riot broke out in Baltimore after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“He headed out with a camera, film and a handkerchief to press over his face in case there was tear gas,” said a 2018 Sun story about Mr. Phillips, who was standing on Gay Street when its local businesses erupted into flames.
“Someone would call the cops and they’d run right up and get hit with stones and bottles while the people who set the fire escaped. It was wild. I had been in the Vietnam War,” he recalled. “In the war I had a gun, and I knew I could always do to them what they were trying to do to me. In 1968 I just had a camera.”
He also said of the experience, “I felt lucky to be there. History only happens once.”
In 1969, The Sun hired him as its first Black news photographer.
“Irv was an easygoing guy,” said Robert Hamilton, a retired Sun photography director. “He took me under his wing, and when I didn’t know anything, he brought me to city parks and showed me Baltimore’s rich African-American history. He was so proud of his days at The Afro paper and proud of his dad’s legacy.”
Mr. Hamilton also said, “Nobody knew Baltimore better than Irv. He loved the city.”
At The Sun, he met his future wife, Clarice Scriber, who worked in public relations at the paper.
They married at St. Francis Xavier Church in April 1978.
They purchased and rehabilitated a home in the historic Madison Park preservation district.
Mr. Phillips covered political events, local sports teams and entertainment.
His wife, Mrs. Phillips, recalled a memorable career moment for her husband.
“It was photographing the late Jehan Sadat, the widow of slain Egyptian President Anwar Sadat; that was among the most memorable for him,” said his wife. “Something about her presence really moved him.”
Friends said Mr. Phillips was an extrovert and greeted people with a big smile. His warm personality disarmed his subjects when he photographed them. He called himself a “citizen of the world.”
“He was outspoken, authentic and an iconoclast,” said his wife. “And he was truly happy about others’ success and encouraged and celebrated their accomplishments.”
After retiring from The Sun in 1993, Mr. Phillips was a freelance photographer.
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He was invited to teach photography at Highlandtown Elementary/Middle School and often bought photography supplies and lent equipment to his students.
Mr. Phillips collaborated with his son to compile an archive of thousands of images photographed by his father, his son and himself. In 2015, three generations of the Phillips family’s photography were exhibited at Baltimore City Hall.
At the show, Mr. Phillips recalled advice his father gave him: “‘You’ve got to capture the moment. Don’t let them get away from you.’”
In retirement, Mr. Phillips read three papers a day, as well as The New Yorker and Vanity Fair.
He was an avid fan of the Orioles, the Ravens and Manchester United. He also enjoyed live jazz performances, theater, foreign films and British television mysteries.
Mr. Phillips is survived by his wife of 44 years, Clarice Scriber, an executive coach who owns Clarity Consulting Inc.; a son, I. H. Webster Phillips III of Baltimore; and two sisters, Laura Phillips Byrd of Baltimore and Sheila Phillips Major of Owings Mills.
A memorial service is planned for late spring.
This article has been updated to correct Irving H. Phillips Jr.'s age when he documented a 1968 Baltimore riot. The Baltimore Sun regrets the error.