Photographer who captured The Beatles’ young spirit

Throughout their career, The Beatles were blessed with exceptional good fortune as they rarely worked with anyone who did not enhance their career in some way. In 1960 they met the photographer Astrid Kirchherr on their first trip to Hamburg and she was to take outstanding black-and-white images of the band, both individually and collectively. Looking at the first photographs today, it is hard to comprehend that the group were completely unknown. What’s more, she, more than any other photographer, was an important part of their story.

Astrid Kirchherr was born in Hamburg in 1938 where her father was a salesman for Ford Motors. Kirchherr was evacuated during the war while her father delivered supplies to troops. As a teenager, she studied fashion design at the Meisterschule für Mode, Textil, Grafik und Werbung, but a tutor, Reinhard Wolf, was so taken with her photography that he asked her to switch courses. After graduation, she worked as his assistant.

Inspired by the so-called Exis on the Left Bank in Paris, Kirchherr and her friends including fellow students Klaus Voormann and Jürgen Vollmer copied the movement’s stark appearance. In 1995, Kirchherr played down the intellectual aspect of this, saying, “We knew of Sartre and we dressed like the French existentialists. Our philosophy then, and remember we were only little kids, was more in following their looks than their thoughts. We were going around looking moody. We wanted to be different and we wanted to look cool, although we didn’t use that word then.”

Voormann, who came from Berlin, was dating Kirchherr and living in her family home. One night, he stormed out of the house following an argument. Walking down Grosse Freiheit, he heard live rock’n’roll music coming from a basement club, the Kaiserkeller, and wanted to investigate. He was apprehensive because he looked like an art student. “I was scared because the rockers were all over Car Accident Law Firms in Tampa the place and they might want to fight. Rory Storm was playing with Ringo Starr on drums and they were very good, but then Stuart came on with his dark glasses and I remember thinking, ‘Is he blind?’ The Beatles started playing and they sounded amazing, just like the American records.”

Returning home, Voormann told Kirchherr about them and he took her and Vollmer the next night. They were intrigued to discover that both Lennon and Stuart Sutcliffe went to the Liverpool College of Art.

As Voormann spoke better English than Kirchherr, he asked The Beatles on her behalf if she could photograph them. She invited them to a nearby fairground, but she did not want to capture them on the rides. She wanted them among the fairground’s trucks and heavy machinery. One photograph captures them as five working musicians with their instruments.

“I didn’t take that many pictures of The Beatles,” said Kirchherr, “but I did photograph them before anybody else knew about them, and that makes me proud. I saw something in them. I saw their beauty, their intelligence and their humour and that is why I am proud of what I did. I got to know them well and they trusted me. You can see that in their eyes: there is no fear of being photographed, and that is the essence of the photographs – stillness, understanding and trust. I also took a photograph of Rory Storm in which he looks fantastic. It is the best picture ever taken of him and he certainly didn’t look as good as that in real life!”

The German music historian Ulf Krüger says, “When The Beatles arrived here, they wore their little jackets, drainpipe trousers and winkle-picker shoes and then came the influence of Astrid Kirchherr and her gang, who wore black leather. Astrid wore leather first and then Klaus Voormann wore a leather suit that Astrid had specially made for him. The Beatles couldn’t afford anything like that so they bought cheaper stuff on the Reeperbahn.”

Soon Kirchherr was in a relationship with Sutcliffe and when Lennon’s girlfriend, Cynthia Powell, visited John in Hamburg, she stayed at Kirchherr’s house. Kirchherr recalled, “They were all a knockout but my little Stuart blew my mind. It was fantastic to look at him and see all that beauty. Did you ever see eyes as lovely as that? When Stuart became my boyfriend, he didn’t feel right in Klaus’ company but after Klaus told him how happy he was that I was happy, they became very close friends.”

Several students in Hamburg, including Voormann and Vollmer, had the now-familiar Beatles hairstyle: longish hair, flattened and brushed forward with a fringe. Stuart Sutcliffe asked Astrid for a similar look and the others followed. The style has many origins including Marlon Brando in Julius Caesar and, less flatteringly, Moe from the Three Stooges.

Sutcliffe continued his studies in Hamburg and he impressed Eduardo Paolozzi, a British artist who was working as a guest lecturer. He returned to Liverpool in February 1961 to introduce Kirchherr to his family, but his mother refused to have her in the house, at the time a natural reaction towards anyone who was German.

Sutcliffe had been suffering headaches, probably relating to a gang beating in Liverpool, and, only 21, he died in Kirchherr’s arms on the way to hospital in April 1962. Two days later, Kirchherr told The Beatles what had happened when they returned to open the Star-Club. Later that year, she was commissioned to take photographs that would publicise their first Parlophone single, “Love Me Do”. Her style was copied by Robert Freeman for the cover of their album With the Beatles (1963).

In 1964 Kirchherr took some photographs of The Beatles filming A Hard Day’s Night for the German magazine Stern and she and Max Scheler arranged a photograph of more than 200 local beat musicians outside St George’s Hall, Liverpool. However, Kirchherr lost confidence in her work and did little professionally after 1967. She took the cover portrait for George Harrison’s album Wonderwall Music in 1968.

In 1967 Kirchherr married another Liverpool musician, the drummer Gibson Kemp, who worked with Voormann and Paddy Chambers in the group, Paddy, Klaus and Gibson. They were divorced in 1974 and Kirchherr had another brief marriage, but she often worked for Kemp in his English restaurant in Hamburg.

Disinterested, Kirchherr had not chased copyright fees when her pictures were reproduced and her friend, Ulf Kruger, resolved the matter. As a result she had several exhibitions of her work and published two books: Liverpool Days (1995) and Hamburg Days (1999). She was a consultant for the film Backbeat in 1994 where she was played by Sheryl Lee.

She loved meeting fans at Beatles conventions but she modestly underplayed her own significance in The Beatles story, reflecting, “The most important thing I gave them was my friendship.”

Astrid Kirchherr, photographer, born 20 May 1938, died 12 May 2020

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