Photographer Spends Two Months Building a Replica of Local Chinese Takeaway, Shoots Cinematic Photo Series Inside

Photographer Spends Two Months Building a Replica of Local Chinese Takeaway, Shoots Cinematic Photo Series Inside

A photographer renowned for spending months at a time carefully curating his sets has just completed his latest project. He has now built a life-size replica of a local 1960s Chinese takeaway; complete with the original paintings and fittings, the series features genuine customers and the owner of the real takeaway. It debuts exclusively on Fstoppers.

This isn’t the first time we’ve featured photographer Nicky Hamilton’s work. So impressed was I at one of his previous projects, The Lonely Man, I interviewed him back in 2017 to gain further insight into the time working on that series. He’d spent over three months constructing each set – including sketching, building, lighting, and actually shooting the images. It may seem unnecessarily lengthy to some, but Hamilton much prefers taking his time in order to craft his images, stating that the photographic world “moves too fast,” and instead he wants to treat his images as if they were a canvas, taking his time to perfect it. Thus, between Hamilton's creativity and his dedication to perfecting his art, this new series, entitled "Take Me Away," has been born.

The owner of the real Chinese takeaway appeared in the series.

Real customers were approached to take part.

One thing that reigns true throughout his work is the cinematic feel; these images look like stills from a feature-length film. The lighting, the atmosphere, the colors, the subjects; they tell a story and make me want to know more about the people I’m looking at. Despite being unable to hide my awe at Hamilton’s work — and knowing full well I don't possess this level of commitment — I was still keen to know what exactly inspired him to take on yet another such time-consuming project.

I was driving home late one night and passed a Chinese take away. The owner was sitting behind the counter watching the television and just waiting for business (seen as the first picture in the series). The dark wooden walls, soft lighting and the way the television illuminated his face seemed to emulate him sitting in his living room but on show for every passerby, this visually and emotionally struck me and thoughts around a series portraying customers and the proprietor waiting in this interesting environment enticed me to make the project.

Hamilton has no qualms in admitting he “stalked” the shop and those entering it before deciding to move ahead on the series. We’ve all been there – I quite often get hostile looks from members of the public I’ve unintentionally been staring at, daydreaming about what kind of portrait I’d shoot with them. Hamilton notes in particular the “expressionless gaze” that adopted many of the customers’ faces as they waited, usually alone, to be told their food was ready. He tells me he is intrigued by the notion of total strangers standing together in what he calls a “culinary cultural melting pot.”

It wasn't just human subjects that took part.

The images have a cinematic feel - a theme recurrent in lots of Hamilton's work.

So why recreate a setting that already exists? Although Hamilton toyed with the idea of shooting on location – it’d certainly be a lot cheaper – ultimately he found that the logistics didn’t suit his vision. He wanted the option of shooting on a longer lens, and wished to incorporate his usual lighting set-ups in order to achieve his signature cinematic look. Not one to settle for second-best, he got to work.

Construction began in his studio shortly thereafter, with the set taking around 8 weeks to complete. Recalling the moment he initially approached the takeaway owner, he said he simply stopped by the restaurant with an opening line of “Hi, I’ve built your shop in my studio.” Needless to say, the owner’s initial reaction was one of both surprise and intrigue. Won over upon learning of the time and effort Hamilton had already invested, the owner went on to lend him all of the original paintings and props from the shop, which have been up since the 1960’s, as well as agreeing to star in the series as the proprietor.

As for shooting the imagery, the series was captured over a period of around 4 weeks. Hamilton says he “visited the real take away regularly [in order] to cast [subjects] and to take note of natural moments,” which he would then replicate at his studio. Despite the elaborate set and lighting, he ended up shooting on film, which helped accentuate the 1960s décor. There’s a real vintage feel to the work, emphasized by the film’s grain, but with “modern moments” that reflect contemporary life.

Hamilton built the set especially so he could implement his preferred lighting and colour. The contrast in age and fashion of the subjects is a nod to modern day Britain.

Props from the 1960s were provided by the owners of the real takeaway.

The series sets out to "portray a melting pot of modern day Britain, exploring culture, class and the act of waiting."

The end result is encapsulating. Presenting like movie stills, it’s hard not to stop and appreciate the effort that’s gone into this set of photos. Some appear as arranged portraits, while others feel documentary in nature, as if the subject is unaware. It was some of the smaller details, such as the chairs being placed in different arrangements, reflecting the way furniture would be moved by customers in a real life scenario, that really complements the series' impact. The shots command attention, and it's clear to see that the composition, lighting, and atmosphere have all been carefully considered. As with most of Hamilton’s work – and regardless of your opinion on the final results - the attention to detail and sheer devotion is undeniable.

"Take Me Away" depicts the life and times of Canton House, a Chinese take away which opened in the UK in the early 60s by the Yau family, after they emigrated from Hong Kong in search of a better life. The 15 piece series portrays a melting pot of modern day Britain, exploring culture, class and the act of waiting – the latter of which us Brits are certainly notorious for.

Nicky Hamilton is a photographer and former Head of Art at leading advertising agency M&C Saatchi. His method is highly filmic, designing, and building elaborate sets to create pictures of extraordinary detail and narrative. His work explores characters’ emotional states by playing with performance and symbolism in order to produce deeply evocative moods. See more of the series, and of Hamilton’s other projects, at his website and Instagram.

All images courtesy Nicky Hamilton, taken from the series ‘Take Me Away,’ and used with permission.

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16 Comments

Robert K Baggs's picture

That's a staggeringly beautiful series, with a concept I'd have never have thought to do.

Ale Vidal's picture

An impressive work. I'd love to see the setup!

Jenny Edwards's picture

Beautiful work, and impressive dedication to go through the process of building the sets! Very inspiring!

Rob Davis's picture

I may sound like a jerk saying this, but it's a pet peeve of mine when photographers try to explain how hard it was to make a photograph to boost it's allure. A photograph should stand on it's own. Building the set for these should be a footnote, not a headline. It should be the answer to the question these photographs generate, not the opening statement. For this series it actually has the opposite effect. Rather than wondering what the guy staring at the vacuum on the floor might've been thinking, I know that someone told him to sit like that.

Joe Martinez's picture

You know when I first read this comment, I started thinking, "this guy DOES sound like a jerk," but as I've sat with it and gone back through the article, I think you are absolutely spot on with this critique. These images are incredible, and I am drawn into the characters and stories they tell, but overshadowing all of it, is this quiet thought of "I wonder what the direction was for that pose," or "I wonder how difficult it was building that wall or tracking down those specific chairs," etc. It takes me out of the moment just enough that I notice it. It's of course an amazing amount of commitment and execution of an idea (and to be fair to fstoppers, I think a majority of people come to this site to learn more about the "how" than the "why") but I think you nailed it with "it should be the answer to the question these photographs generate, not the opening statement."

Spot on. It's like instead of making magical things, Kubrick would start explaining how difficult was to set the rotating running in 2001 or the elevator blood in The Shining. These images are very good but nowadays we forget the real meaning of art and prefer to brag about a "vintage" calculator or the grain resulted from shooting on film.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

Commitment!!!!

This is fantastic. Reminds me of Jeff Wall’s work.

Michael Holst's picture

The colors and mood are very inspiring in this series. Each photo is strong on its own but when you get them together they come alive. All that hard work building the set paid off in the results.

Jack Alexander's picture

Couldn’t agree more

Love this!

Rifki Syahputra's picture

awesome works and pictures.. all the efforts really pays
now he can open his own takeaway resto.. :)

William Howell's picture

This is why I want to photograph. I would love to attempt something like, probably never will, but I can marvel at photographers like this. This is inspired and inspirational.

Very cool.

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