Sunday 12 March 2023

Britain says "Farewell" to Mik Critchlow, much-loved Photographer of the life and people of a Town called Ashington

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Mik, the brilliant social documentary photographer, who has died at the age sixty-eight, once said :

"I’m a very shy person and photography has helped me. I put my head above the parapet, just to have a look, to see what’s going on. It’s different when I’ve got a camera and it’s a passport into other people’s lives. As long as they don’t think you’re doing something untoward or sinister. You’ve got to build up trust".

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He was born Michael B Critchlow early in 1955, in the Hirst district of the Northumberland town of Ashington, once a centre of the coal mining industry and hub for 114 collieries and fifteen miles north of Newcastle upon Tyne. His grandfather worked at the Woodhorn Pit and his father at the Ashington. In addition, Mik had two brothers who worked underground and he often referred to coal as being "in our blood". As a photographer he said : "This helped me greatly to gain access to the local collieries and the men and women who worked there. When asked my name I would always be greeted with a smile “I know your  Dad/Uncle/Brother”. It helped to break the ice as far as making photographs was concerned, my reasons for being there".

He recalled : “My grandfather worked here for 52 years and when he retired, he got one of the aged miners’ cottages. As a kid I used to come and listen to the noise from over the railway line, the shunting going on. Industry in motion really”As Mik grew up he saw that the miners : "All loved their work. What they loved was the camaraderie and the craik. There was such a sense of belonging they’d go to work then go to the club in the evening together and there’d be the same level of camaraderie in social life as what they had in their work. It was shared existence, everybody had nothing, they all had nothing, yet it was rich in humanity". 

Mike said it was "almost expected” that he would follow his father and grandfather down the pit and : “I could have finished school on Friday and started on Monday. One of my photos shows a billboard, ‘MINING : A fantastic way to make a living’ kind of thing. That was outside the school gates. I think a lot of the boys were conditioned. If it’s good enough for your grandad and great grandad, it’s good enough for you". 

At Hirst Park Boys' School Mik said : "I left high school in 1970 at the age of 15 years without any academic qualifications and went straight into the workplace two days after leaving school, gaining full -time employment as a tailor’s trimmer at a local clothing factory. I immediately joined the trade union and soon became an activist within the factory. I once instigated a one day wildcat strike while there, in support of a fellow worker who had been given the sack by management for complaining about working conditions on the factory floor, he was later reinstated. I didn’t make it full term on my trial employment period and was advised to leave by the management".

He now, with the goading of his mother, joined the Merchant Navy. He recalled : “She signed me away. I remember her going with me to the medical in Newcastle". Starting as a cabin boy, he worked his way through the ranks to become a Steward/Cook, whilst being active within the National Union of Seamen. Life at sea was a far cry from Northumberland and Mik said : "By the time I was eighteen I’d been round the world a couple of times – the Med, Australia, India, the USA. The furthest north was Baffin Island”.

When he wound up working on oil tankers in the 1970s, the appeal of a life on the ocean dwindled. He said : “Forty-day trips from Europe, around South Africa and up to the Gulf. I saved a bit of money because we weren’t getting ashore. You’d be at the end of an oil jetty somewhere, Iran or Iraq". Mike, however, had been paving a way for his future because he had been studying through the 'Seafarers’ Education Service' and doing a correspondence course in art and art history.(link)

At the age of twenty-two, after seven years, he returned home and signed up for a foundation course in Graphic Design and Art History at Ashington College. A mature student, his radicalism remained unabated and he said : "I soon became President of the College Union and continued my activism within the education sector". It was the prog rock era and Mike fancied designing album sleeves after graduation, but there was a photography module and, as he said : “They thrust this 35mm camera in my hand and told me to take pictures. That was the start”. With some regret, he later said : “I travelled the world and didn’t take photos. I didn’t even have a camera. I call it my mis-spent youth”.

As a student he was deeply influenced by the work of the great French photographer, Cartier-Bresson. Out and about in Ashington, as preparation for his drawing, rather than angles and buildings he was instructed to snap, he photographed people instead. As a result his tutor ticked him off for “working against the brief”, but his art history lecturer loved the result and told him he was doing 'social documentary' to which Mik replied : "What’s that?" So, we had trips to the Side Gallery in Newcastle. The first exhibition I saw was Cartier-Bresson. That was my introduction to black and white documentary photography on a gallery wall".(link)  Mike said : “His work just hit me. It was his archive from the V&A. Chris Killip organised it, another fantastic photographer".(link)

Mike said : "I took a bus trip with my Dad. My Dad used to do bus trips to Blackpool. I managed to get into the Grundy Art Gallery. Just by chance it was an exhibition called 'The Miner in Art'. It was the first time I'd ever seen the 'Ashington Group' work and it just really surprised me to see images of Ashington on a gallery wall in Blackpool. I just loved the way the Ashington Group recorded their everyday life. Oliver Kilburn's image of 'Saturday Night at the Club' - it was very evocative. I recognised something about it. I knew that from my childhood".

His lecturer helped him to land a commission to photograph Ashington people for Mid-Northumberland Art Group and he said : “I photographed what I knew – family, friends, people in clubs, on the streets. But they wondered where the Rotary Club members were. They were looking for PR, not social documentary. But it encouraged me. I saw that photography could provoke a debate”. With only 14 pits still open Mik in the 1970s Mik said : "I started to realise it was important to record what I saw and the people I knew".

In this period of his apprenticeship on the streets, he said people would often demand : “Why are you photographing me? I’m not royalty”. To which he replied : “You’re my royalty. You’re just as important”. If he had a mission as a photographer it was, as he said, tied up in the fact that : “I’ve always told people they’re important. I was photographing them for history really”. 

Determined to forge a career as a documentary photographer, he was urged to apply for a Northern Arts Grant and he got the money and the support of the Art Film and Photography Officer, John Bradshaw, who was based in Newcastle Upon Tyne. Mik said he was : “A wonderful man. He encouraged me and I was supported for about five years to do different projects. That was a kickstart. Then in 1979 I was introduced to the Side Gallery team and they took me under their wing”.

A family contact helped Mik to win the trust of sea coal collectors on Lynemouth beach. He took photos and smoothed the way for 'Amber', the film and photography collective which ran the Side Gallery in Newcastle to get him to shoot in black and white and capture the uncompromising nature of the work and landscape. Mik said : "In many ways I was in a privileged position, as normally anyone with a camera there would be driven away. The sea coal community were suspicious that anyone with cameras worked for the Social Security. I was allowed to photograph as and when I wished and revisited the sea coaler's camp two or three times a year".

Through the Side Gallery, Newcastle Mik was introduced to fellow photographers Chris Killip (link), Graham Smith and Sirkka Liisa Konttinen, who were also producing long term projects on the working class communities of the North East of England. Chris Killip himself, in photographic pursuit of Northumberland sea-coal workers, in 1983, had bought a caravan and occupied it for well over a year on the coast at Seacoal Camp. Chris, like Mik, had a deep respect for his subjects and was conscious that : “In recording their lives, I’m valuing their lives,” he said of  his mainly unemployed subjects. “These people will not appear in history books because ordinary people don’t. History is done to them. It is not acknowledged that they make history.”  “I am the photographer of the de-industrial revolution in England. I didn’t set out to be this. It’s what happened during the time I was photographing” and “History is what’s written. My pictures are what happened”.(link)

When he started photographing at Ashington Colliery, he noticed a group of mining apprentices and asked if he could take a picture of them. They ran to the disused winding wheel and made ready to be photographed. Mik said : "It’s a nice image, but it’s very poignant as well, because all these young mining apprentices were there in their first year of life at the pit, all looking forward to a job for life, but those dreams were lost".(link) 

Of his own father's last days at the colliery before being made redundant, Mik said : "He had worked at the colliery for forty-five years. His final job was picking stones off conveyor belts. Very hard manual work and he felt he was on the scrap heap".(link)

More commissions followed. He described Ashington as : “A dark, gloomy place with warm-hearted people” where, as he said, as "one of the tribe", he often used, his deep roots in the area to give him unique access and opportunity to photograph different facets of members of the community in the streets, at their homes and work places and at their clubs. He photographed footballers in the changing room and having a bath after a match. He photographed people’s activities during their spare time like people at a Northumberland Miners’ Picnic or an event at the Ashington and North Seaton Whippet Club.(link) He also photographed the built environment : street scenes, workers’ houses and industrial premises. 

While was at a Bedlington Miners' Picnic in 1990 he said : "I was just walking up the hill towards the Belington Town Centre. An announcement over the tannoy system for the 'Winning Brass Band of the Day' and the winning brass band were actually coming down the hill as I was going up and all hell broke loose. They started celebrating, punching the air, dancing around and I just took a series of three photographs, just a slice of life, a moment of happenstance. I happened to be there and they happened to be coming down the hill. It just makes magic".(link)

He recorded the closure of the Woodhorn, Ashington, Lynemouth and Ellington collieries, having spent years gaining permission for access from the National Coal Board. As a chronicler of the catastrophic decline of the coal industry, he said he remembered the “sombre” mood during the last Woodhorn shift in 1981. “I’ve got photos of piles of clothes. Men weren’t going to work next day so didn’t need their overalls. It was like a metaphor for being on the scrapheap”. Mik didn't feature the bitter Miners’ Strike of 1984-5 in his exhibitions and during that time took photos, but mostly of what he called "personal stuff"knowing that families remained riven by the Strike. 

At its peak, 5,000 miners had lived in Ashington. Mike said : "That’s 5,000 families and there were ancillary industries feeding the mining industry that closed at the same time as the mines. We were very, very hard hit. Now, there are problems with alcohol and drugs, and second- or third-generation unemployed kids who have never worked and who have no future prospects. Nowadays, the main employer is the 24-hour Asda store, but I’m told most who work there are on zero-hour contracts".

In his book 'Hirst', published in 2018, Mik documented the loss of a sense of community and his photo of the girl with the black eye, taken with her permission reflected this. He said she was robbed a week after being “shanghaied” up from London. “The social engineering thing where they’re sending people up from down south, getting them out of council houses and gentrifying places. She was a victim of that”. Of his photo of the man slumped over a bar, he said : “I’ve known him since he was nine years old. His father worked down the pit, but he’s never had a full-time job since he left school”. Whereas a man with the ghost of a smile and a face like a walnut was : “The town’s most prolific cat burglar. Just a little fella”.

In the process of over 40 years of photography, Mik compiled an archive of over 50,000 negatives. He had the satisfaction of knowing that his work was held in public and private esteem in collections and had been exhibited widely at the Side Gallery, Amber-Side Collection (link), Northumberland Archives, Brunel University, Museums Northumberland, Durham Art Gallery, Laing Gallery and in Northumberland Libraries.

Between 2015 and 2018, he was commissioned by the 'Creative People and Places Programme', to photograph in East Ashington, the area where he had always lived and the result was the publication of 'Hirst'. Andrea Hawkins in the introduction wrote : ‘His intimate knowledge, love for the people and place made him the ideal artist for a commission to work in the area. His photographer’s eye is unflinching, unsentimental, and full of respect for the people he says are “often seen in the corner of your eye but disregarded”. He wandered the streets for 18 months talking to people and documenting a world marginalised or invisible to those living beyond Hirst’s parameters. His aim was to make visible their friendships, resilience and humanity, the photographs made possible by the openness of people willing to share their life experiences.’

His 'Coal Town', a selection of 200 images primarily from the 1970s and 1980s, was published as a large format hardback in 2019.(link) More recently, in 2021, Mik's career-spanning exhibition, 'Coal Town', went on display at Woodhorn Museum in Northumberland, chronicling the town and people of Ashington over four decades.

Featuring more than 100 photographs taken from the 1970s right up early in this century, it documented the end of the coal mining industry in the town and the immediate and long-term impact of the loss of the industry on the town’s people, places, and community. It also included the final shifts at the Woodhorn Colliery before it closed in 1981 and the lead image for the exhibition showed George Miller Davison, who was the deputy and the last man, who came out of the Colliery.(link)

Rowan Brown, Chief Executive of Museums Northumberland, said :  “Mik’s photographs capture more than just a moment in time. They embody the emotions of his subjects, and that quality brings his pictures to life” and “Mik’s work always sparks an emotional response and like all great documentary photographers, each picture has a story to tell. His genuine warmth and respect for the people he photographs shines through”. Mik himself said : “After all these many years, I feel that I'm bringing these people back to life again, back home where they all belong".

Mike said : 

 "I see it as a duty. A duty to show things as they are. It’s not about nostalgia – it’s the real now".

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