German photographer and artist Astrid Kirchherr is perhaps best known for her remarkable photographs of The Beatles in Hamburg, and for helping define their early image.
She was born in Hamburg on 20 May 1938, and raised by her mother Nielsa Kirchherr in the district of Altona.
After leaving school she enrolled in Hamburg’s Meisterschule für Mode, Textil, Graphik und Werbung. She intended to study fashion design, but found instead a talent for black and white photography.
She was persuaded to switch courses by Reinhard Wolf, the photography tutor, who promised to hire her as his assistant after graduation. She worked with him from 1959 until 1963.
In the late 1950s she and her art school friends – which included Klaus Voormann and Jürgen Vollmer – became involved in the European existential movement, whose followers were nicknamed ‘exies’ by John Lennon. As she explained to BBC Radio Merseyside in 1995:
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.
She began a relationship with Klaus Voormann. In 1960, after Kirchherr and Jürgen Vollmer had an argument with Voormann, he wandered off to the notorious Reeperbahn in Hamburg’s St Pauli district. There he was drawn to the music coming from the Kaiserkeller club.
Upon entering, Voormann sat and watched a performance by Liverpool group Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, featuring Ringo Starr on drums. He stayed long enough 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. Kirchherr was struck by the raw power of the rock ‘n’ roll music, which was new to her.
The trio visited the Kaiserkeller every night from then on, intoxicated by the sound of the Silver Beetles. They looked out of place amid the club’s rough clientele, dressed in their art school clothes – woollen sweaters, jeans and suede coats.
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.
Stuart Sutcliffe, the group’s bass player, was fascinated by the trio. He later claimed that he was unable to take his eyes off them, describing them as “real bohemians”. During a break one night he tried to talk to them, but they had already left the club.
With The Beatles
Eventually they got talking. By this time Voormann’s relationship with Kirchherr had become mostly platonic, and she quickly began dating Sutcliffe. Kirchherr offered to take photographs of The Beatles. The first shoot took place in a local park called 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 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 Pete 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.
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.
During the 1960s Kirchherr’s photographs of The Beatles were printed all over the world. However, she missed out on large amounts of revenue owed to her after failing to assert her rights as owner of the photographs.
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.