Astrid Kirchherr dies

Astrid Kirchherr, the German photographer best known for taking a series of iconic images of The Beatles in Hamburg, has died at the age of 81.

Her death was announced on Twitter by Beatles biographer Mark Lewisohn.

Astrid Kircherr was born in Hamburg on 20 May 1938. Upon leaving school she enrolled to study fashion at the city’s Meisterschule für Mode, Textil, Grafik und Werbung (Master School for Fashion, College of Textiles, Graphic Art and Advertising), until a tutor, Reinhard Wolf, spotted her talent for photography and asked her to switch courses.

Astrid Kirchherr

Inspired by European existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre, in the late 1950s Kirchherr and her fellow art school students, including Jürgen Vollmer and her partner Klaus Voormann began dressing in a similar fashion.

Our philosophy then, because we were only little kids, was wearing black clothes and going around looking moody. Of course, we had a clue who Jean Paul Sartre was. We got inspired by all the French artists and writers, because that was the closest we could get. England was so far away, and America was out of the question. So France was the nearest. So we got all the information from France, and we tried to dress like the French existentialists… We wanted to be free, we wanted to be different, and tried to be cool, as we call it now.
Astrid Kirchherr

Kirchherr and Voormann lived together in her family home. One night in 1960, he stormed out of the house after an argument, wandering into the notorious St Pauli district in Hamburg. Passing by the Kaiserkeller club, he heard music and decided to investigate. Inside he watched Liverpool group Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, featuring Ringo Starr on drums.

Voormann stayed to see the band after them, the Silver Beetles, and was impressed enough to invite Kirchherr and Vollmer to to see them play the following night.

All three were struck by the raw power of the rock ‘n’ roll music, and by the striking looks of The Beatles. Kirchherr was particularly taken with their bass guitarist, Stuart Sutcliffe, with whom she began a relationship.

It was like a merry-go-round in my head, they looked absolutely astonishing… My whole life changed in a couple of minutes. All I wanted was to be with them and to know them.
Astrid Kirchherr
Klaus Voormann, Astrid Kirchherr, Stuart Sutcliffe

Klaus Voormann, Astrid Kirchherr and Stuart Sutcliffe in Hamburg, 1960s

Kirchherr offered to take photographs of The Beatles. The first shoot took place in a local fairground, Der Dom.

The Beatles were dressed like teddy boys, with these very, very pointed shoes which we in Hamburg had never seen before, We were fascinated with those, just like they were with our things. And their very tight trousers and little tiny grey jackets. They didn’t have many clothes, of course. And their hair was combed back with sideboards.
Astrid Kirchherr

The Beatles in Hamburg, 1960

Kirchherr was the first serious photographer to take pictures of the group. The Beatles were apparently “incredibly excited” to be photographed, and her images of them in Hamburg still retain an iconic, stylistically distinctive quality.

Following the first shoot she took the group, minus Pete Best, to her mother’s house in Altona. Kirchherr’s mother was also able to get hold of Preludin, the stimulant used by The Beatles to help them perform onstage during the long Hamburg nights. At the time it was only possible to legally obtain the pills through a doctor’s prescription, but her mother got them for the group from a local chemist.

Kirchherr is perhaps best known for helping develop The Beatles’ image in the early 1960s. The group, apart from Best, all adopted the hairstyle which would soon become their trademark.

All my friends in art school used to run around with this sort of… what you call Beatles haircut. And my boyfriend then, Klaus Voormann, had this hairstyle, and Stuart liked it very, very much. He was the first one who really got the nerve to get the Brylcreem out of his hair, and asking me to cut his hair for him.
Astrid Kirchherr

John Lennon is said to have “collapsed laughing” when Stuart arrived for the first gig after his haircut. Soon after, however, George Harrison also let Astrid cut his hair in a similar style.

Lennon and Paul McCartney succumbed when visiting Jürgen Vollmer at his home in Paris. The Beatles had their new identity: the ‘moptop’ which would shortly become world-famous.

By November 1960 Kirchherr and Sutcliffe were engaged to be married. Sutcliffe had left The Beatles to continue his art studies in Hamburg, though they kept in close contact.

Sutcliffe’s headaches and blackouts led Kirchherr’s mother to arrange for German doctors to carry out checks on him, though while living at the family home in Hamburg his condition worsened. On 10 April 1962 he was rushed to hospital in an ambulance, with Kirchherr by his side, but he died before they arrived.

He died in my arms on that journey. I cannot say it was unexpected but the suddenness… the loss to me was great, and to anyone who knew him, because he was a genius, with a great mind and an original talent as an artist. He would have been outstanding, if he’d lived.
Astrid Kirchherr

Three days later she met The Beatles at Hamburg airport and told them of Stuart’s death. She fell into depression in the months afterwards, and was comforted by John Lennon. He told her: “Come on, make up your mind, live or die. Stop sitting at home – it won’t bring Stu back.”

Kirchherr retained a strong bond with The Beatles, and in 1964 took photographs of them filming A Hard Day’s Night for German magazine Stern. Her early photographs of the group appeared worldwide, although she missed out on large financial rewards after failing to assert her rights as their owner.

I’m not a businesswoman, I’m not organized… I never looked after my negatives, and you need that to prove you took the photographs.
Astrid Kirchherr

In 1967 Kirchherr married Liverpool musician Gibson Kemp, of the group Paddy, Klaus and Gibson. They divorced in 1974, and she married a German businessman. That union ended in divorce in 1985.

Kirchherr took few photographs after 1967, although she did take the inner sleeve photograph for George Harrison’s first solo album, 1968’s Wonderwall Music. She worked variously in a restaurant, as an interior designer, and in 1994 as an advisor on the film Backbeat, in which she was portrayed by Sheryl Lee. She singled out Stephen Dorff, who played Sutcliffe in the film, for special praise.

I got the shock of my life… He’s the right age, but when he looked up, and I saw this shadow, my arms were geese pimpling. The way he talked, the way he smoked, his gestures, were just like Stu’s. I was very impressed.
Astrid Kirchherr

She published a series of photography, and her work has been exhibited in Hamburg, Liverpool, Bremen, London, New York City, Washington DC, Tokyo, Vienna, and at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. In the 1990s she and business partner Ulf Krüger opened the K&K photography shop in Hamburg, selling vintage prints, books, and artworks.

Last updated: 30 September 2020
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