A pillar of photography in Philadelphia, Phillips began making daguerreotypes while in his teens at a shop on the corner of Market and 10th Street. In 1862 he moved his enterprise to the corner of Chestnut and 9th next to the Girard House Hotel and remained there until forming a partnership with Samuel Broadbent (1810-1880) in 1868. Broadbent, a fine artist from New England who received training in making daguerreotypes under Samuel F.B. Morse in New York, initially conducted his business in the south before gravitating to Philadelphia in the wake of the Civil War. Broadbent and Phillips thrived until 1874 when Broadbent left to form one of two episodes of partnership with photographer William Curtis Taylor located at 914 Chestnut. Despite the departure of Broadbent, Phillips retained the old name at his studio until 1881, a year after Broadbent's death. After a short partnership with Curtis Taylor in 1884, Phillips went independent designating his business "Phillips Studio." That establishment, located at 1206 Chestnut Street thrived for thirty-six years, with Phillips' two younger sons, Howard and Ryland, managing the business in the 20th century. In 1910 at their bidding, Henry C. Phillips moved the premises to 1507 Walnut Street. At that time Henry C. Phillips was the oldest active photographer in the city.
During the multiplication of photographic processes in the 1850s and 60s, Phillips chose those that achieved greatest pictorial fidelity rather than those than minimized cost. He switched directly from daguerreotype to collodian wet plate with paper prints, avoiding tintypes and ambrotype processes. When the dry plate revolution took place in the 1880s, he quickly mastered "instantaneous" photography as well. Though he took exterior views early in his career, he became a confirmed studio photographer in the 1870s and learned from Broadbent a fair amount about retouching, vignetting, and employing photo portraits for crayon renditions. He did not employ an in-studio watercolorist, and preferred not to do his own developing. Both of his sons were trained in the chemical end of photography first, before mastering posing. Ryland would become the more celebrated of his two successors, rising to the presidency of national photographic associations and becoming an encourager of the pictorialist innovations of the turn of the century. David S. Shields/ALS
A portrait artist who did celebrity work as a sidelight, Phillips did not favor the elaborate background paintings that had become the hallmark of New York theatrical portraiture. Preferring to feature the face and figure against a neutral or blank background, all of the discrete use of decorative back painting dates from the period when Ryland manned the cameras, from 1895 to 1911. Throughout his entire career, Phillips was a "natural light" photographer using his studio skylights as the principle source of illumination. He used diffusers and reflectors to achieve the low key soft gradation of shadow across contours and features rather than high contrast Rembrandt effects.