By David Morton
November 6, 2021 - A new career-spanning exhibition by social documentary photographer Mik Critchlow goes on display at Woodhorn Museum in Northumberland from Friday, November 19, documenting the town of Ashington and its intimate connection to the mining industry.
Chronicling the town and people of Ashington over four decades, ‘Coal Town’ provides a rare glimpse inside the town’s coalfield communities, and captures periods of major social, economic and political change in Northumberland.
Featuring more than 100 photographs taken from the 1970s right up to the early 2000s, ‘Coal Town’ documents the end of the coal mining industry in Ashington, and the immediate and long-term impact of the loss of the industry on the town’s people, places, and community.
The exhibition includes many images from Woodhorn, including the final shifts at the colliery before it closed in 1981.
Mining apprentices with winding wheel, Ashington Colliery, 1981.
Image: Mik Critchlow
Rowan Brown, Chief Executive of Museums Northumberland, said: “It feels incredibly poignant to have Mik’s body of work on display at Woodhorn Museum.
“Our museum was founded to remember and celebrate Northumberland’s proud mining heritage, and Mik’s work respectfully captures the town, people and surrounding areas of Ashington that were at the heart of the county’s mining industry.
“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.”
Born and raised in Ashington, Mik Critchlow has amassed an archive of over 50,000 pictures during his 44-year photography career. He began photographing the people and street life of his hometown in 1977.
Part of a mining family, Mik often refers to coal as being ‘in our blood’. His family moved to Northumberland in the mid 1800s to work in the region’s coal mines. Mik’s grandfather worked at Woodhorn Colliery for 52 years, his father spent 45 years as a miner, and his two brothers also spent 25 years working underground.
Mik said: “For the past 44 years I have photographed the town, people and surrounding areas of Ashington, Northumberland, the town in which I was born, educated and still live.
“Ashington as a community owes its very existence to coal mining, and although the extraction of coal was the major dominant factor in their lives, miners and their families shared many interests. There was always a strong tradition of community life.
“People would often ask me, ‘Why are you photographing me? I’m not royalty’, and I would say, ‘you’re my royalty, you’re just as important’. I’ve always told people they’re important. I was photographing them for history really.
“After all these many years, I feel that I'm bringing these people back to life again, back home where they all belong.”
Last man out, Woodhorn Colliery, Northumberland, 1981 Image: Mik Critchlow
Image: Mik Critchlow
Many of the images in the exhibition at Woodhorn Museum feature in Mik’s first book, Coal Town, which was published in 2019. His work has also been exhibited and published by Side Gallery, Amber-Side Collection, Brunel University, Durham Art Gallery, Arts Council England, Northern Arts, The British Journal of Photography, and Creative Camera.
Rowan continued: “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.”
Coal Town opens at Woodhorn Museum in Ashington on Friday, November 19, 2021 and runs until Sunday, March 6, 2022. For more information about the exhibition, visit www.museumsnorthumberland.org.uk.
For more information about Mik Critchlow, visit www.mikcritchlow.com.