See Brand New Photos of The Angel of the North on its 25th Anniversary
February 2023 marks the 25th anniversary of the Angel of the North. We catch up with Teesside-born Sally Ann Norman, one of the photographers who captured the construction of the sculpture, who is releasing brand new images from the day it was built
On the site where the Angel of the North now stands coal mining took place until the late 1960s, and it was in 1990 that the former colliery pithead baths were reclaimed and earmarked for a future landmark to be built. The process took years to pull together, including the shortlisting of international artists and sculptors to commission for the project. In 1994 the winning sculptor, Antony Gormley, was selected, and although many people thought his materials and the site were controversial, the sculpture has become an iconic part of the North East.
Now to celebrate its 25th anniversary one of the architectural photographers present on the build, Sally Ann Norman, is releasing never-before-seen images. ‘I was the only photographer shooting it on large format film – it was really exciting,’ she says.
Sally’s interest in photography began as a teenager using her brothers Instamatic camera before her dad bought her her own at the age of 14. ‘My grandparents, who lived in the Lake District, were both artists and my dad always encouraged me to take photos. I really struggled at school but they were good at encouraging me with my photography and someone told me I could make a living out of it,’ Sally explains. ‘I went to art college and learnt how to be a commercial photographer, doing a bit of everything including film and sound. We did portraiture and advertising, as well as architectural photography,’ she adds.
Going to college and being able to explore the landscapes and buildings really drew Sally into the idea of specialising in architectural photography. ‘I enjoyed getting out and about, meeting new people and seeing new places. I think I already had a bit of a knowledge and interest [in structures and buildings] because my dad was in construction and engineering,’ Sally says. ‘I was learning about photography but also about architecture [at college] because it’s not enough to just know how to photograph something, you’ve got to understand the subject. I think that’s really important for photographers, so you not only understand the brief from construction companies or architects, but also having a knowledge about what has gone into making something gives you a better picture.’
After finishing her college course Sally set up her own photography business. ‘I had already worked with Gateshead Council because in the mid 90s you could count on one hand how many people photographed buildings in the North East professionally; you needed quite high-powered, expensive big kit – it wasn’t something people could just do on their phone back then,’ she explains.
When the Angel of the North had been commissioned, Gateshead Council selected three photographers to document the building of the structure, and one of them was Sally. ‘My role was looking at the built environment side [of the project].’ This meant following a brief to photograph the coming together of all the steel parts which make up the Angel of the North. Weighing 200 tonnes, the steel parts travelled from Hartlepool where the structure was made, across to Gateshead to be fitted and welded together on site. Below the sculpture, giant concrete piles, 20 metres deep, were put in place to anchor the Angel to solid rock underground, and all this construction work was to be captured by Sally. ‘It went up within about three hours, so we had to be there at 6am and it was still dark when they put the body up. The whole structure was up by mid-morning, they just had welding to do which carried on for a day or so,’ she recalls.
Following the construction of the Angel of the North, sculptor Antony Gormley wanted to know where people would be able to see his artwork from so that he could create a book called Making an Angel. ‘I think I had about three weeks after it went up to try and get all these different views. I shot it on a large format camera in one place and left it there so I could do a time-lapse and I was also shooting on medium format film. I had to make choices because it was 1998 and professionals hadn’t moved to digital yet – the quality wasn’t good enough. I had to make decisions about what kind of film to shoot it on, should it be in colour or black and white?’ Sally explains. ‘I shot a lot of it in both, and I think the black and white works best. My brief was to stick to the structure and the building of the structure, but [looking back] I would have photographed more of the teamwork because it’s interesting to see things come together and the guys welding and their expressions and interactions. In hindsight, I would have shot more people,’ she says.
The Angel of the North quickly became a national news story for many different reasons. ‘It was seen as a risky thing to do and a really out-there decision that Gateshead Council had made – it ended up being a brilliant decision but they got a lot of stick beforehand,’ Sally remembers. ‘The day it went up, even before they finished it, worldwide film crews and press had gathered and it was incredible because it changed everything in the blink of an eye.’
‘I think for 20-odd years people just wanted to see the finished thing and it’s taken this amount of time for people to want to look back’
The iconic sculpture which proudly overlooks the A1 has become part of our Northern identity, with people from far and wide coming to visit the site, as well as taking a glance when driving along the motorway. Ahead of the 25th anniversary, Gateshead Council are collecting stories and memories of the special day the Angel went up – and Sally believes now is the right time to release some of her unseen prints which she took 25 years ago. ‘They’ve been in my safe and I’ve always known the value of them in terms of historical archives. I think towards the end of last year two or three people got in touch, knowing that I had taken some pictures of the Angel, asking if I would sell them a print. I thought well, I don’t really do that, but I could,’ she explains. ‘I put in a lot of effort going through the film and seeing what I had. I think for 20-odd years people just wanted to see the finished thing and it’s taken this amount of time for people to want to look back.’
Sally has now released some of the images on her own Etsy website. ‘A week after the Angel went up I happened to know a couple who lived in Gateshead who owned a film company and they had been commissioned by Channel 4 to create a short piece about the Angel. They phoned me to say they had a cherry picker [next to the sculpture] and once they’d finished what they were doing I could have five minutes in it. It was back in the day when the path was slightly different and you could get a cherry picker to it (you can get a drone now of course) but I went up to the head and got a really nice close up shot of the wing when there was football match going on behind – and Gormley said it was his favourite,’ she recalls. However, Sally has yet to release this image on her site, as well as some of the others which she has kept in her safe for the past 25 years. ‘My friends have asked why I haven’t got that one on Etsy, but I’m being cautious. I think there is a part of me, for that one and one other, which is a bit nervous to let them go.’
Living North have one Angel of the North print by Sally to give away – for your chance to win this special print enter our giveaway here.
To find out more about Sally’s work, visit her website sallyannnorman.com. To shop her prints head to etsy.com/uk/shop/STUDIOHEED