In our long-running series "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion and beauty industries about how they broke in and found success.
Despite his noticeable personal style, Phil Oh is easy to miss in the scrum of street style photographers outside of fashion shows. While everyone else is loud, occasionally pushy and chasing fervently after the latest influencers, Oh is of the type to take his time searching for just the right person to photograph. That mode of working is the result of his humble beginnings in the street style game.
"When I started, since there were so few photographers, they were able to go and talk to people, go up to someone and ask them what they were wearing, who they were. We'd reach out and start building relationships, becoming friendly with people," he says. "It was leisurely. It wasn't this stressful, chaotic free-for-all that is now."
Getting into street style wasn't a career move for Oh; after writing a book, he found himself with equal amounts of money and down time, so he followed friends — "DJs or nightlife types" — to Europe for fashion weeks abroad. Despite not having a background in neither photography nor fashion, Oh decided to start shooting outside the shows to have something to do during the day. "I felt a little silly just going to these places just to hang out, so I was thinking, 'Well, what can I do that dovetails with those travels where I'm not just doing nothing?'" he remembers.
That's how Street Peeper, Oh's blog, got started in the mid-aughts; from there, he built up a reputation for himself as being a strong street style photographer, and eventually, a newly-relaunched Vogue.com came calling. Oh has been their go-to fashion week photog ever since.
Before his schedule got truly insane once more with the Spring 2019 shows, we chatted with Oh about how he set his own blog apart from the other street style websites, when he knew his photography would become more than a hobby and what he thinks of the street style scene today. His take is a must-read for anyone in the industry.
Why did you start the blog?
I thought about doing a street style blog because at the time, there were a couple that existed that I knew of — obviously the Sartorialist, and one from Helsinki called Hel Looks; I already knew FRUiTS, the magazine about Tokyo street style. I thought, "Oh, there's already three street style blogs; if I make a fourth one, it's going to be really corny. There's already too many." I had multiple cities on one blog, and it would all be searchable by brand and by style, so if you click on a brand like Prada, you could see all the other people wearing Prada. At the time, it was kind of cool, but now every website has search engines.
Then I would start hanging outside street corners in Soho or Shoreditch or Shibuya in Tokyo; I would just stop people who I thought had interesting style. At the time, "interesting," to me, just meant I thought it was eye-catching. As time went on, I developed an interest in fashion.
What were those early days of street style like?
Well, then it wasn't really a job; it was just something I did in my spare time — though I had a lot of spare time at the time because I didn't have a real job. If I were in New York, I would just hang outside that store Seven New York; it doesn't exist anymore, but it was the sort of place that would stock avant-garde stuff in the mid-2000s. Sometimes I would hang outside Opening Ceremony when that opened. I would wait around, and, on a good day, get, maybe, five or six good pictures.
Then New York Fashion Week came around and I thought, "Oh, this might be a good place to take pictures." Then I would get 20 photos in a day, so I thought, "Maybe I should just start doing more fashion weeks," but I didn't really know any of the designers. I didn't know who any of the editors were. I didn't really read fashion magazines. Then there were only just a handful of photographers; usually, mostly just the Japanese magazines would send photographers. I had to really explain to everybody what I was doing. It was before it became a common practice, where people know what's going on. It's like, "Hi, excuse me, my name is Phil, do you mind if I take a photo of you for my style blog?" I had to really try to convince people. People were more guarded then with their identities and stuff.
When did you feel like it was becoming more than just a hobby?
When an ad agency contacted me to buy an ad on my blog; they asked for an RFP. I had to fill out all these Excel spreadsheets with my traffic numbers and everything. In the email, I thought, "There's no way this is the budget they have. They must have thrown in an extra zero by accident. I don't want to ask about it because if I ask, then that's kind of weird — they might just give me the smaller number," so I just waited until the check came, and when it was that full amount, I was like, "Holy shit. Maybe this can be more than just a hobby."
Not long afterwards, Seventeen contacted me about doing a photo shoot; I did an eight-page editorial for them. I was still using a shitty point-and-shoot camera. I had never even thought about doing photo shoots — I'd never been on one. They flew me out to LA, and I thought it would just be me, the stylist and the model. Since it was a major Hearst title, the production was a mobile home and staff of 10, 12 people. I came to work on this photo shoot, but I had no idea what I was doing, and I think they could sense that I had no idea what I was doing, but at least I was friendly. [Laughs]
The story didn't get killed, but then after that I figured, "Okay, maybe I should figure out how to use a camera; maybe I should start taking this a little more seriously." The day before the shoot, I bought the cheapest SLR camera they had, which was the Canon Rebel EOS. It was clearly an amateur setup that I had. I remember the producer asked me where my assistant and all my gear was. I was like, "Oh, I can have assistants? What do you mean gear? I'm holding my camera right here." I'll never forget the look he gave me. [Laughs] Fake it 'til you make it, I guess.
What was the learning curve on that?
In a fashion sense, there was no real pressure since it was my blog, so I had quite a long time to really figure out what I liked and what interested me for style. It wasn't like I was being thrown right into the fire. By the time that street style became more of a thing and there were daily slideshows on Vogue.com, I feel like I had a pretty good handle on what I liked.
By then, I had developed my own sense of style, so people trusted me in a way. I know when a lot of younger photographers get hired by other publications or by photo agencies, they're told specifically what to get. It's not, "Go out there and pick what you like." It's, "Go out and get these specific people or these specific trends." Being early to the game, I got a little lucky like that.
The photography, it was really hard at first because, since I'd never been on a photo set before, I had no idea how a photo shoot was supposed to be run. I didn't realize that the photographer was in charge. People were looking at me to make decisions, and I was looking to the art director to make decisions. Most photographers had to assist for years before they get to that point, whereas I was just sort of thrust into it. The first few years were difficult because I didn't really have that much confidence in what I was doing, mostly out of inexperience. Even now, there's still a degree of that because I've still never really been on a photo shoot as just an observer.
How has social media changed what you do?
To be honest, it really hasn't changed a lot of what I do, per se, because I already have an outlet for the photos I take — people know to go to Vogue.com to see my photos. But I think for up-and-coming photographers who don't necessarily have an outlet, it's a great way for them to get their work seen.
I don't really post that much on Instagram, mostly because I like it to be something funny or interesting, so it takes me a long time to think of something interesting to say about a photo. I guess I don't really use social media as much as I should, but that's probably a mistake on my part.
How do you balance all your work?
The fashion weeks are more like three and a half, four months out of a year, if we include the menswear and the couture. Those days are 30 straight days, yes, but the rest of the year, it's the opposite — I have so much free time to make my own schedule and to do what I want. It's like "Deadliest Catch": They work like crazy for crabbing season, and the rest of the year, they're kicking back drinking beers. That's what this is — it's three and a half months, four months on a fashion week crabbing ship.
Most photographers have to do a lot of editorials to keep their name out and get their work out, but the slideshows are my editorial, in a way, so the rest of the year, I mainly just focus on commercial, advertising, e-commerce and catalog jobs. I haven't done much editorial in a while, but I just did one for Glamour Germany. It was 38 pages and the cover, which was fun. I want to start doing more of those; it's been a while.
What was appealing about being Vogue's street style photographer?
I remember I went in for the interview — and this was just before Vogue.com relaunched as a separate entity — I didn't really take it too seriously because I never really read fashion magazines that much. I knew Vogue — I obviously knew the Vogue name — but I didn't really know what it meant. It sounds like I'm Andy at the beginning of "The Devil Wears Prada," but really, I remember getting the job and then telling my friends, "I just got this new gig." They got really excited and then I thought, "Oh, shit. Maybe this is a bigger deal than I thought."
My blog was sort of nearing its peak, or at its peak, so I had to juggle, "Do I want to focus on working for someone else, for Vogue, or doing that as a side thing and building my own blog?" That was a bit of a challenge for a few years, but then people took the Vogue name a lot more seriously than Street Peeper for some reason. [Laughs] I don't know why. I started getting access to more things than I would have before, so I started neglecting my own blog — I don't even know if it's still up. I'm still paying the hosting fee, so it must still be there. [Ed. note: It is.]
How have you seen street style change since you started?
Now, it's become like a carnival shooting game. A lot of the photographers treat all the show-goers as if they were, like I said, a carnival shooting gallery where they're not really treated like actual people. They're just ducks to be shot out of the air.
I try to be really conscious about the show-goers, the women's feelings in a way. I've seen some photographers do some really mean things. Not intentionally mean; I mean like wave someone out of the way — "Move out of the way." It's just this uncomfortable idea that all these editors, buyers, even though they're really important women in their field, they're still being judged by these random dudes. The self-esteem hit that people might take, I try to be conscious of that, but a lot of people aren't.
Where do you see the future of street style?
I don't know. I'm surprised it lasted this long, so I'm just riding this wave until I crash into a bunch of rocks somewhere. I mean, every year, I just think, "Oh, it can't get any crazier than this," and sure enough, it does.
What advice would you give someone looking to get into street style photography?
That's really hard to say because I got to where I am now out of sheer luck and good timing. The path that I took isn't necessarily a path that's available or open or suggested for someone else. That's why I'm always hesitant to give advice, because I think people need to find their own path and what works for them. I can't say, "Do what I did," because you would need a time machine to go back before Instagram and social media were invented. My advice is to ignore it, to not seek out advice, and find what works for you.
What's something that you wish you would have known before you started?
I just wish I'd known that the work that I do has value, too. Since it was always just a hobby to me, it started out as a hobby, I never really took it seriously enough. I didn't really have that much belief in what I was doing. If I knew then what I knew now, if I had more confidence in what I was doing then, I think things would have been a lot easier for me.
What is your ultimate goal for yourself?
Most career coaches tell people to set goals and aim for them, but I guess I've never really been goal-oriented. I'm sort of riding it for what it is. I could say I'd love to shoot Chanel campaigns or something like that, which is true, but I'm happy and grateful for what I have now, so I'll take any growth beyond this as a blessing.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.