Irving Henry Webster Phillips is the third generation of Phillips to capture the Baltimore Black community through the lens of a camera. With thousands of photographs sitting in a basement, he’s taken on the gargantuan task of archiving his grandfather’s photographs, bringing to life a retro Baltimore.
We spoke to him about carrying on the legacy of his family and how he’s turning the past into the future.
What is your earliest memory of photography?
My earliest memory of photography was being at my grandparent’s house and my dad putting a camera in my hand. He would put a strap around my neck and tell me to never set it down. He said, “If you shoot at this, take a picture and everything will come out.”
How old were you?
I could walk so I was old enough to hold a real camera.
Do you remember what kind of camera it was?
It was a Nikon F3.
Would your grandfather or father bring you on shoots?
I would go out with my dad on Saturdays. He started to shoot early at 5 or 6AM to meet a deadline for the Baltimore Sun. He would go pick up his assignment sheet and then we would ride around and shoot. Depending on how many assignments he had, we might get back around noon. We would then go to the paper where he would process the film and I’d watch him develop it.
Did he let you shoot?
I would always have a camera wherever we went. Sometimes being a little kid, I could get into a place he couldn’t or get a different kind of shot. Every once in awhile, he would put me in the distance to get me in the shot.
Would your pictures ever make it into the paper?
Once there were some guys who were getting pulled over and I shot it with the long lens. I remember that day clearly. It got into the paper under his name.
How’d that make you feel?
I was just happy to know it was good enough to get in the paper.
Tell us how you started building an archive of your grandfather’s work.
A few years back, I was teaching photography when one day, the history teacher of the school gave the kids an assignment to interview an elder in their family. The teacher was looking for images that would reflect what the kids were finding and it was hard to find a lot of shots really showing a wide variety stuff. You always have the celebrity stuff or the tragedy stuff. But you don’t see the postman delivering mail or the car mechanic working on his car. A lot of things my grandfather shot weren’t things that necessarily got into the paper.
Had your grandfather already catalogued his work?
My grandfather had some stuff catalogued in the basement where he also had a dark room. Around 1997 my father ran across a thousand negatives that weren’t labeled; they were just sitting in a box. He started to go through those and we began the process of rounding up all the negatives. A lot had sleeves that had deteriorated or weren’t labeled so we would go through slowly and hold them up to the light. If you see a shot of a guy with a horn, you know it’s Louis Armstrong. Otherwise, you don’t know who it is.
Walk us through the process of archiving the images.
Around 2010, I started scanning negatives. I had an office in a music studio and would sit there all day, scanning negatives. On a good day you can scan 50-75 negatives, scanning two at a time at a high resolution. When you have a bunch of negatives, you can smell the sulfur which is like rotten eggs. I try not to have too many in one place at a given time. I’ll put them in sleeves and put maybe 200-400 negatives in a binder. I’d pull the negatives out one by one and match it to the book if I need to go back later.
Did anyone help you?
Nah, just me. Sometimes people would sit in the office next to me but you do end up spending a lot of time in the room by yourself, looking at these old pictures. I stopped scanning after 10,000 negatives and then went back and started the process of tagging them with keywords and identifying them.
How do you identify who is in the pictures?
Every month, the Dunbar Class of 1949 meets at the Orleans Street Library branch. So I recently went there, plugged in my laptop and asked them where they grew up and what their professions were. So if they were a teacher, I’d type in “education.” If they used to box, I’d pull up boxing shots. The goal was to see if they recognized someone. I hung out with them for two hours and got maybe fifteen pictures. They’re 70 to 80 years old but when they know people, they know it. They remember the details.
You’re also using social media to identify people, yes?
Lately, I’ve been putting images on Facebook and Instagram. I tell people to show it to an elder in their family and see if they recognize the person. We showed a photo a few months ago- a shot of women on Psalm Sunday- and all those women got identified from a Facebook post. Someone had recognized them as his aunts. Someone once recognized a picture of his great grandfather on Facebook and brought his great grandmother to a workshop. She’d never seen that picture, which was of him playing guitar in a band.
When kids see these photos, what’s their response?
Usually a lot of time it’s disbelief, like when you see things for the first time. Looking at the ice man with a big block of ice and two hooks or looking at the guy with the fish on the scale in the middle of the street. When I saw the kids’ reactions to my photos…I mean I knew that history was important but this kicked me into high gear.
When going through the photos, did any jump out at you?
There was one of a group of white women in a courtyard with a painted background. All the women were nude or had on sheer tops and one woman is putting hers on and it’s caught in the air. Were they shooting a movie? Was this a modeling thing? I’ll probably never find out.
The other one was of a prison break. The guy had tunneled himself out of the jail and this picture was of a reporter who is waist deep in the hole. My grandfather is looking through the cell and the reporter is in the hole to show you scale of how big it was.
What do you think of photography of Baltimore today?
A lot of people are really doing Baltimore justice with photography. They’re showing everyday life, all sides and also just taking their craft seriously. It’s easy to show a block full of boarded up houses and even though that is a factor in Baltimore, there are also streets where there are just families living. The guy who gets up and goes to work every day, of kids going to prom.
Do you have advice for amateur photographers?
Look for something that catches your eye because usually that means it will catch someone else’s. It’s like music: make a song you like and someone else out there should be close enough to you who will also enjoy it.
What do you hope to accomplish with the archive?
The goal is to make a website where you can put in keywords so it’s not just a site with photo galleries but it also has historical content that can be used as an educational tool. I feel like making the old stuff available is so important. Right now, if a kid wants to see what Baltimore looked like 40-50 years ago, he’s kind of limited. So teachers and kids can use this as a reference.
I’m curious as the grandson, how it feels to see these photographs?
It’s like going back in time, seeing all those images and how the community worked, how recreation worked. You get a real sense of how you would have been back then. In the majority of the photos ,people seem like they’re having a great time. They’re proud of what they’re doing, their crafts, their families. They have a lot of pride in their area.
The biggest thing was that if you went to the store, you wouldn’t go to the big Walmart, you would go to go to the shop down the street. The money didn’t leave the community.
I’ve been so many places he’s been. Imagine looking at 10,000 pictures from your grandfather. You’re really seeing his life, the ins and outs. He was definitely conscious that people were going to see these photos and he probably had plans to make a book that he never got to.