Astrid Kirchherr, the constant companion of the Beatles in their early days in Hamburg who took the photographs that established their iconic early look, has died at 81.
The relationship between Kirchherr and the band, especially original bassist Stuart Sutcliffe, to whom she became engaged, was dramatized in the 1994 film “Backbeat,” which had Sheryl Lee of “Twin Peaks” fame portraying Kirchherr.
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Brian Epstein made them understand the meaning of polish and panache. Klaus Voorman gave them a graphic sensibility. Douglas Millings crafted their initial boyish brand of sartorial splendor. But Kirchherr gave the Beatles an image, a sense of danger, style, androgyny and sexuality.
“When no one else showed the slightest of interest, Kirchherr snapped the first ever photograph of the Beatles — the version with drummer Pete Best and bassist Stu Sutcliffe — in her hometown of Hamburg when they were an unknown, greaser five-piece playing Little Richard covers at the Star Club in 1960. From there, it is was Kirchherr who coaxed the band to cut their hair into mop-tops for a greater sense of savoir faire.
“The Beatles will forever be known as the original boy band… but the men — or, rather, boys — owed a major part of their success to a woman,” wrote Stephanie Eckardt in the glossy style bible, W, on the occasion of the 2018 Damiani publication of “Astrid Kirchherr with the Beatles.”
Upon learning of her death, Beatles biographer Mark Lewisohn said “Danke schon” in her native German and described her this way on Twitter: “Intelligent, inspirational, innovative, daring, artistic, awake, aware, beautiful, smart, loving and uplifting friend to many. Her gift to the Beatles was immeasurable.”
On Thursday, original Beatles drummer Pete Best had wished her an early happy 82nd birthday on Twitter. He described his “lifelong friend” as “a great girl who took my favourite photo ever of a Rock n Roll band. Just happened the band were The Beatles. The original five members.”
“In my opinion, their iconic hairstyle imprinted them on the libidos of the teenage girls that were their fans,” said author Denny Somach, the man behind “A Walk Down Abbey Road,” and an occasional interviewer to Kitchherr. “Astrid was responsible for the look of Beatlemania.”
After coming across the group at a gig in 1960, Kirchherr, who was born in Hamburg in 1938, dated and eventually became engaged to Sutcliffe, the band’s first bassist. It was not just her photography but her “moptop” haircut for Sutcliffe that helped form the imagery that would soon cause the group to become international sensations, albeit without Sutcliffe — who died of a brain hemorrhage in 1962, as she rode in the ambulance with him — or Best.
Kirchherr remained friends with the band after Sutcliffe’s death and continued to photograph them behind the scenes of “A Hard Day’s Night,” photos that she published in a 2008 book, “Yesterday the Beatles Once Upon a Time.” She also shot George Harrison — whom she described as ” always my sort of guardian angel” — for the 1968 “Wonderwall Music” album.
Kirchherr described those early days in a 2008 interview with Terry Gross for “Fresh Air”: “The first time I met The Beatles was through my former boyfriend, Klaus Voormann, who saw them one night when he was wandering around Hamburg and then he heard this beautiful sound of rock ‘n’ roll music. And he went down into a quite dark, filthy cellar where these boys were standing on a very, very tiny stage … He told me about it and it took him a couple of days to convince me to go with him to see the boys, because the Reeperbahn is not a place where young ladies in the ’50s or ’60s were to have seen or go there.”
When she “went down the stairs and looked at the stage, I was just amazed how beautiful these boys looked, and being a photographer then, it was a photographer’s dream. After that first night, I went nearly every night to see them,” she said.
The Beatles were very taken by the stark, somewhat formal, monochrome look of Voorman and Kirchherr. They were inspired by Sartre and the French existentialists of the time, but, she told Beatles biographer Hunter Davies, “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.” When she did her first photo shoot with the then-quintet, it was amid trucks at a fairground, with the group in black leather — following her lead.
Kirchherr told Gross about the origins of the Beatlecut. Voormann “had a big problem,” she explained, “because his ears used to stick out, and then I had the idea to just grow the hair over them, which he then did and it looked absolutely beautiful. So when the boys saw Klaus, Stuart was the first one who said, ‘Oh, I would like to have that hairstyle.’ And because their hair was very long I could do it in one night … which I did. And Stuart was the first one who performed onstage with the so-called Beatles or Klaus haircut.”
Kirchherr was also the apparent source of at least some of the signature outfit that came to be associated with the group in the first days of Beatlemania, after they abandoned the leather/greaser look they had when she first photographed them. She said that when Sutcliffe moved in with her and her mother, he started wearing some of her more androgynous clothing, because they were roughly the same height — including a collarless jacket whose style soon became a signature look for the entire group.
After Sutcliffe’s death, she took photos for the “Love Me Do” single sleeve; although she did not shoot the iconic “With the Beatles” album cover, it was acknowledged as being influenced by the style she had already established.
After the mid-’60s, Kirchherr mostly gave up photography. “Astrid lost confidence in her work and did little professionally after 1967,” Davies wrote. She later admitted that she wasn’t sure at the time whether she’d actually been good at it or only received the acclaim because of having the biggest stars in the world as her seminal subjects. She became a photographer’s assistant for more than 20 years after that, then became an interior designer.
In 2010, she released a book of photographs titled “Astrid Kirchherr, A Retrospective” and had an exhibition at the Victoria Gallery and Museum in Liverpool.
She was married and divorced twice — first, to Gibson Kemp, who replaced Ringo Starr in Rory Storm and the Hurricanes — and had no children.
Kirchherr said on “Fresh Air” that “maybe it sounds sort of sentimental, but when I saw him for the first time I knew that was my man, you know. He was, and still is, the love of my life. Even though he’s gone for such a long time, but I never, ever — and I was married a couple of times — met another man who was so fascinating, so beautiful and so soft and well-mannered … and such a gifted artist.”
Of the Beatles, she said, “The most important thing I gave them was my friendship. They trusted me. There (was) no fear of being photographed.”
Even before Twiggy adopted the boyish haircut, it was Kirchherr — seen in photos of that time with a similar cut to the mops she trimmed for the Beatles — who wore, and lived it, first.
She maintained the style that was so influential on the band, telling Gross in 2008 that she “still like(d) to wear leather pants, even though I’m going to be 70 next year.”
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