Mik Critchlow, ‘The Documentary Approach’ talk 29 April 2022

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Mik Critchlow ‘The Documentary Approach’

Mik’s talk was a photographic love letter to his hometown Ashington and its people.

The first half was a monochrome celebration of ‘what was’, starting in 1977 and finishing with the closure of Ashington and Woodhorn collieries in 1988. The second half, both in colour and black and white, was a lament to what has been lost, with images taken from 2015 to 2018. It was an emotionally touching, sobering, and inspiring presentation.

Mik was born in Ashington in the early 1950s and on leaving school he ‘ran away to sea’, joining the merchant navy and traveling the seaways for seven years before settling back in Ashington and enrolling on to a graphic design course.

The course had a photography module, and this changed his life forever. With a college Zenit 35mm camera his set off to photograph interesting angles of building, an assignment set by his tutor. He showed the impressive results of his first ever roll of film which were McCullin-esque in their monochrome Northern grittiness. His tutor hated his photos – there were people in the photos, not abstract angles of buildings – but his art historian lecturer loved them and introduced him to social documentary photography. Mik immediately went to the library to pore over the photos of Ian Berry and others.

Mik has what he calls, an immediacy of life approach to his photographic style, a sort of action shots in a documentary way where he freezes time and action. He showed this with a photograph of the Ashington bus station with a girl leaping across the road frozen in the air. (Before we get dewy-eyed about the halcyon 1970s; in the distance of this shot you can make out a notorious poster of advert for a Fiat car which had the slogan “If this were a lady, it would get its bottom pinched”. That leaping young girl had to live through attitudes that this slogan represented.)

Being a local lad Mik was part of the scenery and went around the town photographing just about everything and everyone around him. He had unique access and was not a threat, he was just seen as a ‘hippy with a camera’. He photographed in working men’s clubs, men playing dominoes, women doing the can-can on stage, the winner would win a prize of a box of meat donated by the local butcher.

He photographed shop owners – butcher, cobbler, – women under the driers at the local hairdressers, whippet races, the brass band and more. He only used a 50mm and 28mm lens and got close, invested time getting to know people, became part of the wallpaper and part and parcel of the whole thing. Later he acquired a Rollieflex twin lens reflex camera.

People were very accommodating and Mik would give them a 10×8 print after he had taken their portrait.

Mik also did a photographic study of the sea coalers who eked out a living on closeby Lynmouth beach. They would take a horse and cart to the edge of the sea and shovel coal into the cart whatever the weather. They would bag up the coal and sell it for half the price of coal from the mines. It was hard, back-breaking work, caught in a raw realism.

He then showed life in the coal mines which took two years to get permission to shoot. He was accompanied by Jackie who was not a social realist but Head of Health and Safety. Mik’s style was somewhat cramped at times by Jackie’s day job and an insistence that ‘all photographs will be vetted by the National Coal Board on completion’, but he overcome these restrictions and produced a body of work that captured the working environment – a way of life – in its dying years. The photos were shot from 1981 to the closure of the mines in 1988 and the end of regular employment for far too many in the town.

The final shot of this part of the talk was of a box used by mining rescue teams. On the box was the label: morphine.

In the second half Mik brought Ashington’s story up to the present day with a look at the area of the town where he lives called Hirst. Thirty years after the pits closed it is a depressed and depressing town. Drug dependency, alcohol abuse, and violence are problems. The local shops have gone replaced with fast food outlets and stacks of pizza boxes have replaced pit props. Where a young girl leaped in the bus station a young woman passes by after finishing a shift on a zero-hour contract at the local Asda seen in the distance.

We see a despondent Scott in Wetherspoons who is an alcoholic and has never had a job since he left school. He is now 38 years old. He has been on numerous workfare schemes, been promised a job at the end of the scheme only to be replaced by someone else starting the same scheme. Mik has known him since he was nine years old.

Mik had a shot of young single mother who had been relocated to Hirst from London because it is cheaper to house her 300 miles away from any social support she had. She was sporting a black eye. Mik called this photo Migrant Mother, Ashington after Dorothea Lang’s famous American depression photo of 1936.

We also saw a portrait of a young Spanish couple with their baby daughter in their home. They have lived in Ashington for 10 years and bought their own home, an old colliery house. The photo of them was taken two days after the Brexit vote and already they have had a brick thrown through a window and messages through the letter box telling them to go home.

What was once a close-knit community which welcomed people from all parts of the country has changed. He finished his talk with a photo of English flags on a fence saying “This is us really, the fences are up, and the flags are out”.

An astonishing presentation with images that told a story which revelled in the strength of community and grieved its loss.