Path #2: Tom's One Hour Photo
The retro world of Tom Tuong.
Desire Paths is a newsletter about the wild, winding, lesson-filled lives of fascinating people. Thanks for coming on the journey.
Happy new year and welcome back to Desire Paths.
This week’s edition is a bit different – more photo essay than interview. But I think images are best for telling the story. I hope you enjoy it.
P.S. Huge thanks for the big response to DP #1. Lots of you even wrote in to say you’re booking a holiday at Le Provencal, which makes me incredibly happy. Tell Damien I sent you.
I’m Danny – an editor, photographer, traveller and small business fan. My day job is editorial director of Courier magazine. This is my personal newsletter, Desire Paths.
DP is based on the idea that the most fulfilled, fascinating people in the world are those who look at the boring, comfortable, predictable path they could take in life and say nope. Instead they chase after risky, weird dreams, change careers, make unconventional decisions, or cross oceans to start something new (or just start over).
I dig deep with these people and share everything I learn with you. Let’s go.
#2: Tom’s One Hour Photo
This is Tom Tuong, owner of Tom’s One Hour Photo & Lab, a photo studio in LA.
You might have heard of Tom. You might know his story. And you might have even trekked out to his photographic cave of wonders and emerged with incredibly cheesy 90s-yearbook-style portraits – and a giant grin on your face. It’s a quintessential LA experience.
Tom immigrated to the US from Vietnam in the late 70s, and opened his studio in ‘91. He had a bustling trade back then, with portraits, film development and photo printing still a growth industry. Things, alas, changed. Digital photos have eaten the world. Back in ‘93, there were 7,600 one-hour photo processing shops in the US. By 2015, that dropped to only 190. I'd wager the tally’s since fallen further.
So, spots like Tom's are rare. And while some anachronisms have gained steam in recent years (vinyl, anyone?), I’m not quite sure 1-hour photos have yet. That is, unless you're Tom’s. Because over the past 3 years, the fate of Tom’s nondescript Koreatown studio has transformed from mom-and-pop-shop-just-about-getting-by, to viral sensation and beloved local business.
And it all happened with a friendly boost from Kacey Musgraves…
Back in 2019, the country singer, by chance, stumbled upon Tom’s, loved it, posted about it on her Instagram, and even created a dedicated IG page for the business:
We were just in LA and needed to find a One Hour Photo place quick. Sandwiched between little bodegas, my sister randomly found this place on Beverly Blvd in Korea Town called Tom’s One Hour Photo & Lab. It’s one of those rare mom-&-pop gems that has lasted thru trends coming and going and weirdly has come back around again without even realizing it. The owner, Tom, was SO adorable. He not only does film developing but (cheap) and nostalgic portrait sessions too. (He gave us digital files and we edited these but he’ll shoot on film if you ask him to.) Pick your favorite background! He made them all himself. 🥰 It’s cash only and he has no internet. He sadly told us his business used to be really busy back in 1991 when he opened but has slowed way down since the digital wave. So, like any good millennials would do we started an appreciation Instagram for him. @tomsonehourphotolab 🌹 Not sure he’ll even see this. Stop by, tell all your friends, and don’t forget to tag. Let’s keep this charming business afloat! #TomsOneHourPhoto
The rest is history. The LA Times came calling. Rolling Stone stopped by. And a long caravan of dogs, celebrities, and fans have paid to have their photo taken by Tom – including me and Kim, on a beautiful winter’s day a few weeks ago…
HOW TO BOOK. Tom’s has no website. Instead, you call a number and Tom’s wife Lisa Le picks up the phone and books you in for a 20-minute slot. Business at Tom’s is booming these days, so plan ahead accordingly. You’re reminded to bring cash $$. You’re also reminded more than once that Tom’s is a family-friendly studio. I can only begin to imagine what depravity or props or illicit behaviour led to that policy. But hey, I’m a family-friendly sort of guy. No worries there.
BE ON TIME. On the day of your 20 minutes of fame, you turn up at the shop in Koreatown, and Lisa greets you at the counter. We got there a bit early, and Tom was tinkering in a corner. I immediately fell in love with the chaotic perfection of the scene. Camera batteries, clocks, fan art, photos of family and Kobe Bryant and Mike Bloomberg. After signing in, you choose a backdrop for your shoot – clouds, dragons, butterflies (there are 30+ of them, which Tom hand painted 20 years ago) and wait for the fun to begin…
THE SHOOT. Getting your photo taken by Tom is unforgettable, in the best sense. When your name is called, you’re led through the back of the shop, into a small dark room decked out in backdrops, faux ancient Greek columns, and a giant flash hanging from the ceiling. What happens next is either magic or something Larry David would have nightmares about in a Curb episode. Between snaps and flashes, Tom contorts your limbs, head and hands into the most unnatural and hilarious of positions, while barking orders: LOOK UP! LEFT! NOT THAT WAY, THE OTHER WAY! FACE UP! YES! CHIN DOWN. After a few minutes it’s all over. You return to the waiting room, dazed, laughing, happy, and wondering what the hell just happened.
CHOOSE YOUR SHOTS. Take a seat and wait for Tom to call you to his computer for editing. Kim and I went for the ‘inspirational cloud backdrop’ (she also did a rose one). You get your entire shoot on a memory stick, and Tom prints your favourites in whatever size you want. For a bit extra $, I also got a particularly hilarious shot of us in a transparent keychain.
And that’s it. It’s pretty simple: local businesses like Tom’s give me life. They’re the fabric of communities. And they make cities interesting places to live.
I’d go back again in a heartbeat.
Why not pay him a visit yourself?
Thanks so much for reading. Desire Paths is a newsletter about the wild, winding, lesson-filled lives of fascinating people. If you enjoyed it, I’d love if you’d consider subscribing or sharing with a friend.