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Astrid Kirchherr (20 May 1938 – 12 May 2020) was a German photographer and artist known for her association with the Beatles (along with her friends Klaus Voormann and Jürgen Vollmer) and her photographs of the band’s original members – John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Stuart Sutcliffe and Pete Best – during their early days in Hamburg.
Kirchherr met artist Stuart Sutcliffe in the Kaiserkeller bar in Hamburg in 1960, where Sutcliffe was playing bass with the Beatles, and was later engaged to him, before his death in 1962. Although Kirchherr shot very few photographs after 1967, her early work has been exhibited in Hamburg, Bremen, London, Liverpool, New York City, Washington, D.C., Tokyo, Vienna and at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. She published three limited-edition books of photographs.
Kirchherr was born in 1938 in Hamburg, Germany, and was the daughter of a former executive of the German branch of the Ford Motor Company. During World War II, she was evacuated to the safety of the Baltic Sea where she remembered seeing dead bodies on the shore (after the ships Cap Arcona and the SS Deutschland had been bombed and sunk) and the destruction in Hamburg when she returned.
After her graduation, Kirchherr enrolled in the Meisterschule für Mode, Textil, Grafik und Werbung in Hamburg, as she wanted to study fashion design but demonstrated a talent for black-and-white photography. Reinhard Wolf, the school’s main photographic tutor, convinced her to switch courses and promised that he would hire her as his assistant when she graduated. Kirchherr worked for Wolf as his assistant from 1959 until 1963.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Kirchherr and her art school friends were involved in the European existentialist movement whose followers were later nicknamed “Exis” by Lennon. In 1995, she told BBC Radio Merseyside: “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.“
Kirchherr, Voormann and Vollmer were friends who had all attended the Meisterschule, and shared the same ideas about fashion, culture and music. Voormann became Astrid’s boyfriend, and moved into the Kirchherr home, where he had his own room. In 1960, after Kirchherr and Vollmer had had an argument with Voormann, he wandered down the Reeperbahn (in the St. Pauli district of Hamburg) and heard music coming from the Kaiserkeller club. Voormann walked in and watched a performance by a group called the Beatles: Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, Sutcliffe and Best, their drummer at the time. Voormann asked Kirchherr and Vollmer to listen to this new music, and after being persuaded to visit the Kaiserkeller (which was in the rough area of the Reeperbahn), Kirchherr decided that all she wanted to do was to be as close to the Beatles as she could. The trio of friends had never heard rock n’ roll before, having previously listened to only trad jazz, with some Nat King Cole and The Platters mixed in. The trio then visited the Kaiserkeller almost every night, arriving at 9 o’clock and sitting by the front of the stage. Kirchherr later said: “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.”
Kirchherr later said that she, Voormann and Vollmer felt guilty about being German, and about Germany’s recent history. Meeting the Beatles was something very special for her, although she knew that English people would think that she ate sauerkraut, and would comment on her heavy German accent, but they made jokes about it together. Lennon would make sarcastic remarks from the stage, saying “You Krauts, we won the war”, knowing that very few Germans in the audience spoke English, but any English sailors present would roar with laughter.
Sutcliffe was fascinated by the trio, but especially Kirchherr, and thought they looked like “real bohemians”. Bill Harry later said that when Kirchherr walked in, every head would immediately turn her way, and that she always captivated the whole room. Sutcliffe wrote to a friend that he could hardly take his eyes off her and had tried to talk to Kirchherr during the next break, but she had already left the club. Sutcliffe managed to meet them eventually, and learned that all three had attended the Meisterschule, which was the same type of art college that Lennon and Sutcliffe had attended in Liverpool. (Note: Meisterschule für Mode, Textil, Grafik und Werbung [Master Craftspeople College for Fashion, Textile, Graphics, and Advertising], although it is now called the University of Applied Sciences).
Kirchherr asked the Beatles if they would mind letting her take photographs of them in a photo session, which impressed them, as other groups had only snapshots that were taken by friends. The next morning Kirchherr took photographs with a Rolleicord camera, at a fairground in a municipal park called Hamburger Dom which was close to the Reeperbahn, and in the afternoon she took them all (minus Best, who decided not to go) to her mother’s house in Altona. Kirchherr’s bedroom (which was all in black, including the furniture, with silver foil on the walls and a large tree branch suspended from the ceiling), was decorated especially for Voormann, with whom she had a relationship, although after the visits to the Kaiserkeller their relationship became purely platonic. Kirchherr started dating Sutcliffe, although she always remained a close friend of Voormann.
Kirchherr later supplied Sutcliffe and the other Beatles with Preludin, which, when taken with beer, made them feel euphoric and helped to keep them awake until the early hours of the morning. The Beatles had taken Preludin before, but it was only possible at the time to obtain Preludin with a doctor’s prescription note. Kirchherr’s mother received them from a local chemist, who supplied them without asking questions. After meeting Kirchherr, Lennon filled his letters to Cynthia Powell (his girlfriend at the time) with “Astrid said this, Astrid did that”, which made Powell jealous, until she read that Sutcliffe was in a relationship with Kirchherr. When Powell visited Hamburg with Dot Rhone (McCartney’s girlfriend at the time) in April 1961, they stayed at Kirchherr’s house. In August 1963, Kirchherr met Lennon and Cynthia in Paris while they were both there for a belated honeymoon, as Kirchherr was there with a girlfriend for a few days’ holiday. The four of them went from wine bar to wine bar and finally ended up back at Kirchherr’s lodgings, where all four fell asleep on Kirchherr’s single bed.
The Beatles met Kirchherr again in Hamburg in 1966 when they were touring Germany, and Kirchherr gave Lennon the letters he had written to Sutcliffe in 1961 and 1962. Lennon said it was “the best present I’ve had in years”. All of the Beatles wrote many letters to Kirchherr: “I only have a couple from George [Harrison], which I’ll never show anyone, but he wrote so many. So did the others. I probably threw them away. You do that when you’re young – you don’t think of the future.” Harrison later asked Kirchherr to arrange the cover of his Wonderwall Music album in 1968.
The Beatles haircut and clothes
Kirchherr is credited with inventing the Beatles’ moptop haircut although she disagreed, saying: “All that rubbish people said, that I created their hairstyle, that’s rubbish! Lots of German boys had that hairstyle. Stuart [Sutcliffe] had it for a long while and the others copied it. I suppose the most important thing I contributed to them was friendship.” In 1995, Kirchherr told BBC Radio Merseyside: “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. Pete [Best] has really curly hair and it wouldn’t work.” Kirchherr says that after she cut Sutcliffe’s hair, Harrison asked her to do the same when she was visiting Liverpool, and Lennon and McCartney had their hair cut in the same style while they were in Paris, by Kirchherr’s friend, Vollmer, who was living there at the time as an assistant to photographer William Klein.
After moving into the Kirchherr family’s house, Sutcliffe used to borrow her clothes, as he was the same height as Kirchherr. He wore her leather pants and jackets, collarless jackets, oversized shirts, and long scarves. He also borrowed a corduroy suit with no lapels that he wore on stage, which prompted Lennon to sarcastically ask if his mother had lent him the suit.
Sutcliffe wrote to friends that he was infatuated with Kirchherr, and asked her friends which colours, films, books and painters she liked, and whom she fancied. Best later commented that the beginning of their relationship was, “like one of those fairy stories”. Kirchherr says that she immediately fell in love with Sutcliffe, and referred to him as “the love of my life”. Kirchherr and Sutcliffe got engaged in November 1960, and exchanged rings, as is the German custom. Sutcliffe later wrote to his parents that he was engaged to Kirchherr, which they were shocked to learn, as they thought he would give up his career as an artist, although he told Kirchherr that he would like to be an art teacher in London or Germany in the future.
Kirchherr and Sutcliffe went to Liverpool in the summer of 1961, as Kirchherr wanted to meet Sutcliffe’s family (and to see Liverpool) before their marriage. Everybody was expecting a strange beatnik artist from Hamburg, but Kirchherr turned up at the Sutcliffes’ house at 37 Aigburth Drive, Liverpool, bearing a single long-stemmed orchid in her hand as a present, and dressed in a round-necked cashmere sweater and tailored skirt.
In 1962, Sutcliffe collapsed in the middle of an art class in Hamburg. He was suffering from intense headaches, and Kirchherr’s mother had German doctors perform checks on him, although they were unable to determine the cause of his headaches. While living at the Kirchherrs’ house in Hamburg, his condition deteriorated. On 10 April 1962, Kirchherr’s mother phoned her daughter at work and told her Sutcliffe was not feeling well, had been brought back to the house, and an ambulance had been called for. Kirchherr rushed home and rode with Sutcliffe in the ambulance, but he died in her arms before it reached the hospital.
Three days later Kirchherr met Lennon, McCartney and Best at the Hamburg airport (they were returning to Hamburg to perform) and told them Sutcliffe had died of a brain haemorrhage. Harrison and manager Brian Epstein arrived on another plane sometime later with Sutcliffe’s mother, who had been informed by telegram. Harrison and Lennon were helpful towards the distraught Kirchherr, with Lennon telling her one day that she definitely had to decide if she wanted to “Live or die, there is no other question.” […]
Astrid was a dear friend from my Hamburg days with The Beatles. Another friend, Klaus Voormann, told me she had passed away and this brought back memories of our days in the clubs in Hamburg. Astrid looked unique. She had a short blond haircut and wore a slim black, leather outfit which made her look like a funky pixie. She would come to the club with Klaus and another friend, Jürgen Vollmer, and the three of them made quite an impression on us four lads from Liverpool. Their wit and conversation was really stimulating and we fell in love with Astrid’s style.
Astrid took beautiful photographs of us. She used black and white film and achieved a stunning mood in her pictures that we all loved. She had a great sense of humour and later went on to marry Stuart our bass player. I have so many fond memories of our time together in the club or her home or a trip to the nearby seaside resort, Lübeck.
So sad for all of us who were her friends to lose such a lovely lady from our lives. I will miss her but will always remember her and her cheeky grin with great fondness. God bless you Astrid, see ya love! – PaulPaul McCartney, May 21, 2020 – From Facebook
Last updated on March 19, 2021