Critchlow was initially inspired by The Ashington Group of artists (also known as the Pitman Painters), having seen an exhibition of their works at Grundy Art Gallery in Blackpool in 1977. The collective was made up of local miners who came together in 1934 to pursue artmaking, mainly through sketches and vibrant, detailed paintings. “They recorded their lives with such honesty, painting the ordinary, the mundane, the everyday,” Critchlow recalled. “They showed me that ordinary people’s lives could be important and could be seen as art.” It was a philosophy Critchlow lived by for his whole career. When local people would query why he was photographing them, he would tell them that they had created the wealth in Ashington; that they were an important part of its history. “Every frame’s like an act of remembrance, for future generations,” he said. “People trusted me. I was part of the tribe.”
Around the same time, Side Gallery in Newcastle was developing its programme, having shown photographs by Graham Smith, Chris Killip, Homer Sykes and August Sander in 1977, the year of its opening. Critchlow visited an exhibition of works by Henri Cartier-Bresson the following year, a travelling archive from the Victoria and Albert Museum organised by Killip. He became friendly with the gallery team, gratefully receiving their mentorship and recalling the impact of Tish Murtha’s Juvenile Jazz Bands at Side in 1979. His work was exhibited at the gallery for the first time in 1987, and then several times thereafter, most recently in 2019 in Work & Workers alongside Daniel Meadows, Graham Smith, Walker Evans, Nick Hedges and a long list of renowned documentarians.
When Killip had trouble accessing the seacoaler community of Lynemouth Bay in the late-1970s, it was Critchlow who introduced Killip to his cousin, Trevor, who in turn gave Killip access to shoot there for two years from 1982. Fourteen pictures from Killip’s Seacoal series were included in his book In Flagrante in 1988, while Critchlow’s own Seacoalers photographs show the toil – and beauty – of the workers and their daily rhythms. Using horses and carts to transport the coal, they represent a different time, caught between tradition and impending modernity. “They were suspicious that anyone with cameras worked for the Social Security,” Critchlow remarked. But they trusted Critchlow, his liaison and artmaking based upon respect and resolute aesthetic judgement.