An interview with Mik Critchlow

September 30, 2019  •  1 Comment


An interview with Mik Critchlow 

Mik Critchlow Photographer 2019

Copyright Mik Critchlow



RH: Who is  Mik Critchlow 

MC:  Mik Critchlow (b.1955) is a social documentary photographer based in the North East of England.  Mik has worked on long term community-based projects for over forty years.

On seeing an exhibition of paintings in 1977 by the ‘Pitmen Painters’- a group of Ashington men brought together in 1934 by the Workers Educational Association for Art Appreciation classes, he realised the value of art as a social document, the visual representation of everyday life, by one’s own knowledge and personal experiences.

In the same year, he began a long term photography project which documented his home town of Ashington, Northumberland. The son of a miner, he has worked within the community with a deep-rooted empathy for the townsfolk, documenting the area and it’s people during a rapid period of social and environmental change.

Work is held in public and private collections and has been exhibited & published widely including:  Side Gallery, Amber-Side Collection, Northumberland Archives, Brunel University, Museums Northumberland, Durham Art Gallery, Arts Council England, Laing Gallery, Northumberland Libraries , MCC Museum, Northern Arts, The British Journal of Photography, Amateur Photographer, Creative Camera, Museums Journal. 

Recent exhibitions include: 'Forever Amber' - Laing Art Gallery 2014, 'The Share' - Northern Rock Gallery 2014 , 'About The North - Imagined Dialogues' - Side Gallery 2018,  'Pitmen Painters Unseen' - Woodhorn Museum 2018, 'WORK+WORKERS' - Side Gallery 2019.





RH: What attracted and inspired you to your current documentary project?


MC: My true inspiration has always come from the people I meet and the stories that they would like to share, I'm an open book, a good listener and find that it's very important to have that real connection with people. My current documentary work is the same story that I've been working on for over 40 years, I've always been in it for the long haul and as long as I can make pictures and share others experiences and situations I'm happy, It's my immediate community, it's all I know.


Copyright Mik Critchlow


RH: Can you talk us through the planning stage for your project?


MC: You come up with the initial ideas and take it from there, I've never really planned a project unless it needed certain permissions for access to workplaces. I think the real planning only happens if I'm working on commissions and need to meet tight budgets and deadlines for completion. I like to work on the fly and make immediate connections through the people I know who can make things happen for me, it's all about working relationships & contacts. Sometimes I feel that I should be managed as I can be disorganised at times.





RH: Is there anything you wish you had done differently?


MC: In reality I wish that I'd spent much more time with my family years ago, I missed out on so much when I was working away on assignments and commissions. Precious time that you cannot get back.



Implementation and Completion


RH: How have you dealt with any challenges and difficulties within your project?


MC: I think the main challenge is keeping up the same level of motivation that you had on the first day. Every day is different, you make new contacts which in turn leads to better relationships with the people & communities which you are working in. You've got to keep an open mind and remain true to yourself as well as the people you meet. A high level of honesty and integrity helps - I don't sell people short or bullshit them and don't use images without permission first. I always tell people that their image may be used for an exhibition or book project and usually they are fine with that.



RH: How long do your projects tend to take from start to finish?


MC: My projects have always been done over fairly long periods of time, building the work slowly as I start to understand the bigger picture so to speak.  You start a project sometimes with pre-defined ideas about what you want to say with your photographs and then something changes within the project which takes you off on a completely different tangent.  Some of my shorter projects have lasted between 12-18 months, some have developed over many years, building upon the original story, adding to the work.  My work with Seafarers was originally a 6 month commission and I ended up working on the project for over 3 years, much of that time - self funded. My work in my hometown began in 1977 and it's still ongoing, you've got to have staying power to see projects through.


Copyright Mik Critchlow

Editing and Sequencing


RH: Do have several images to edit of one fleeting moment or do you have one well-constructed precise image that you have captured?


MC: It  depends really on the images that I'm working on, in fast moving situations I may take a short series of images as the scene unfolds in front of me, I usually know when I've captured something worthwhile within the scenario and stop at that moment, I tend to work quickly reacting to my first intuitive response to what I'm seeing. I've never used a motor drive and can usually nail the image in one or two shots. I've got a DSLR that is capable of 11 frames per second but I've always got the drive set to single shot, I'm not a 'spray & pray' photographer - You've really got to have confidence in your own abilities to capture the moment. I can't say that I've ever constructed a picture, pictures just happen, I love elements of spontaneity and the way things present themselves in front of me, the only construction element is in the actual framing of the scene. I also hate editing so the less frames I have to sort through the better, I'm an old school film photographer so I still treat every frame as if it's my last, even when shooting digital.



RH: Within the editing stages, have you felt the project has taken on a different narrative than first envisaged?


MC: When you lay out a series it's always fascinating for me to see images which have been shot at different times/places which work well within a sequence, the narrative either changes direction or leads you into other ways of thinking. You find images which work well together and it usually broadens the dynamics of the project.

Winning Brass band - Northumberland Miners Picnic 1990

Copyright Mik Critchlow


Tips and hints 


RH: What would you recommend for people starting their own photographic project?



MC: I would advise people to find something that they are passionate about, keep it local, there are probably a thousand worthwhile stories/projects within a 5 mile radius of your home. Start with something you know and feel passionate about and go on from that point of initial interest.



RH: Does the camera really matter? 


MC: I think cameras are only a means to an end, you just use the best that you can afford at the time, after all they're only tools. You don't get many professional plumbers discussing what brand of wrenches or pipe cutters they use. Jimi Hendrix was a fantastic guitar player but who gives a damn about what strings he had on his guitar, it's the end result that counts. It would be refreshing to  think this should be the case with photographers. I recommend  that you find a camera/lens combination that you are comfortable with and stick with it. Try using only one lens and learn what it can do, I've always found that the best wide angle or telephoto is your feet . For the majority of my work over the years I've used a medium format Rolleiflex TLR which has a fixed standard lens, same with 35mm I tend to only use a 28mm or 50mm lens, keep it simple and don't tie yourself to technology and gear.



RH: Any books you would recommend reading to get the creativity started?


MC: I would recommend looking at as many photographers monographs as you can lay your hands on, study their work, go to your local library, visit photographic exhibitions, I would advise strongly to keep away from the weekly/monthly camera comics, they only want to sell you the latest gear that you don't actually need. Above all, have an open mind and always be inspired, learn by your own mistakes, sometimes an element of danger is a good thing.



RH: Would you recommend attending photography workshops?


MC: I teach on workshops so of course I'm going to say yes, but sometimes people go on workshops expecting the world to open up to them and it doesn't happen for some reason. They've probably enrolled on the wrong workshop with the wrong intentions with the wrong tutors. I would say that they would get better value by just spending the same money to travel and shoot. It's much better to do workshops with tutors/photographers with solid real world experience who are proven experts in the field. There are far too many photography workshops being run by very clever marketing people and so-called business gurus who are only in it for the money, not worthwhile life affirming and useful photographic education. 

Copyright Mik Critchlow


Una's - First Avenue, Ashington 1978Una's - First Avenue, Ashington 1978Una's - First Avenue, Ashington 1978

Copyright Mik Critchlow

The Banksman - Ashington Colliery 1981The Banksman - Ashington Colliery 1981The Banksman - Ashington Colliery 1981

Copyright Mik Critchlow







An insightful and informative interview which has, in my opinion, got to the heart in a few short sentences of the essence of documentary photography as described by Mik. A quarter of a century ago I taught photography at Northumberland College alongside Mik; ever since I have held him in the highest regard, both as a practitioner and as a human being. I can't wait for Coal Town to land on my doormat!
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