When Kacey Musgraves stopped by the half-shuttered building advertising one-hour photos on the outskirts of L.A.’s Koreatown neighborhood Saturday night, owner Tom Tuong thought it was just another customer coming in for portraits.
Sandwiched between a pet store and discount hardware store, Tom’s 1 Hour Photo isn’t exactly the type of place you would expect to find someone like Musgraves, or most tourists for that matter. Faded posters, old calendars and sepia-toned photographs of families and stock models adorn the walls of the trailer-sized space, with signs in the front advertising cheap passport photos and camera repairs. In the back, there’s a makeshift studio, where customers can book half-hour appointments to pose in front of their choice of vaguely-retro, Hot Topic-esque pull-down backdrops. The basic package includes a photographer, a set of photos (either printed out or as a digital file) and occasionally, if Tuong feels inspired, a few video clips as well.
Musgraves, who played two sold-out shows at L.A.’s Greek Theatre over the weekend as part of her “Oh, What a World” tour, explained in an Instagram post that she was looking for a quick one-hour photo spot in the city. As Musgraves writes in her post, which has since amassed more than 165,000 likes, it was her sister who found Tom’s, a blink-and-you-miss-it spot off bustling Beverly Blvd. The singer went in and posed for a series of vintage-inspired glamor shots, wearing a red, white and blue tracksuit and holding a red rose. She later shared a couple of the photos on social media, and they immediately went viral.
View this post on Instagram
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
Tuong says Musgraves introduced herself, though as someone who doesn’t follow music much, he didn’t know who she was. His interest was piqued, however, when he noticed the “pretty girl” had arrived with her own makeup team. “It all happened very quickly,” Tuong says, recounting the experience less than 72 hours later. “It just took 30 minutes and then she was gone.”
Just as quickly as she had waltzed in unannounced, Musgraves and co. were out the door. It was only later, when Musgraves posted about her visit — along with outtakes of her photoshoot — did Tuong realize who had been posing in front of his chalky, white rose print backdrop.
Musgraves sent out a series of posts about Tom’s 1 Hour Photo on Wednesday (the singer has 1.6 million Instagram followers and 800,000 on Twitter), and re-tweeted a number of comments about her experience. “It’s one of those rare mom-and-pop gems that has lasted thru trends coming and going and weirdly has come back around again without even realizing it,” she wrote in an Instagram post. She finished the post by encouraging fans to stop by the shop, writing, “Let’s keep this charming business afloat!”
Tuong says the phone hasn’t stopped ringing since. An “appreciation” account that Musgraves started for the shop on Instagram gained 30,000 followers in less than two days. The singer later posted a screengrab of Tuong’s son thanking her for spreading the word about his family’s tiny business, leading to more likes and retweets. The store has gotten so busy that Tuong’s wife, who works at a nail salon, is now coming in on her days off to help keep up with the demand.
On Thursday morning, there were five people lining up to have their portraits taken before 11 a.m., including — curiously — the actress Maude Apatow, who showed up right as the store opened, wearing a blue dress with red lipstick and dangling earrings. After snapping some photos in the shop’s back studio, Apatow disappeared down the street into her friend’s Range Rover and just like that, she was off, one brief moment of whimsy spurred by another.
Tuong was born in Vietnam, but left the country in 1979, settling into the scrappy Koreatown neighborhood that he’s called home ever since. He worked odd jobs here and there — at a restaurant, selling newspapers — before saving up enough money to get married and open Tom’s 1 Hour Photo in 1991.
“I’ve been taking photos for more than 40 years and here for 30 years,” he says, tapping his fist on the front counter. “This is my life; I don’t know anywhere else. Monday to Sunday, I work everyday.”
He’s never had any attention before, he says, so he’s still trying to figure it all out. He’s going to ask a friend to maybe help him with Instagram, and he might put up a photo of Musgraves on the wall (“Normally, if I know the singer, I’ll print out a big picture and ask her to sign it for me, as a memory,” he explains).
He remembers Musgraves saying she hopes to see him again, but now that he knows who she is and has seen her schedule, he won’t hold her to it. And while stories of Musgraves “saving” a down-and-out business may have been slightly exaggerated, Tuong says he’s still grateful for the attention she’s brought to the small shop.
“It’s normally busy here,” he says, “but when something happens like this, it’s a nice surprise.”
“Because she didn’t tell me she was a singer, I just thought she was a regular customer,” he continues. “She looked like she was having fun, she thought the photos were nice — I was just happy that she liked it. If the customer is happy,” he says with a smile, “I’m happy too.”