German photographer Astrid Kirchherr, best known for her work with the Beatles, has died at the age of 81, according to a tweet by band historian Mark Lewisohn.
Born in Hamburg in 1938, Kirchherr spent her teens as an art-school student enamored with the European existentialist movement. One night in 1960, the budding artist was walking through the St. Pauli district of Hamburg when she stopped by the Kaiserkeller club. Onstage was an English group called the Beatles.
“It was like a merry-go-round in my head,” Kirchherr later recalled in The Beatles: The Biography. “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.”
The young photographer was especially enamored with the band’s bassist, Stuart Sutcliffe, admitting she “fell in love that very first night” with the musician.
Kirchherr quickly befriended the Beatles and asked if she could photograph the group. The black-and-white photos would be the first professional shots of the band.
“Astrid asked us if she could take some photographs of us, and because we loved the idea, that led to our first photo session when she took us to the Hamburg Fairground,” George Harrison recalled in the book Hamburg Days. “Astrid was totally responsible for that whole image.”
“It is a serious job being a portrait photographer which is how I saw myself,” Kirchherr later explained, giving her reason for photographing the band with serious faces. “I always took my friends seriously in what they were doing. For me, the music of the Beatles then was serious and very, very serious art. So I couldn’t take a picture of John laughing his head off or pulling funny faces because he was a serious artist, even when he was only 20.”
Kirchherr has also been credited with giving the Beatles their distinctive early mop-top haircuts. But the photographer was never comfortable with that claim.
“All my friends in art school used to run around with this sort of what you call Beatles haircut,” the photographer explained during a 1995 interview with BBC Radio. “And my [first] boyfriend, 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.”
Kirchherr and Sutcliffe would become a couple, with the musician leaving the Beatles in 1961 to pursue an art degree at the Hamburg College of Art. They would get engaged, but tragedy struck before they were married. In April 1962, Sutcliffe collapsed in an art class and died, the result of a brain hemorrhage.
The Beatles and their manager, Brian Epstein, were among those to support Kirchherr during her time of grief. Even as the group moved forward with its career and became the biggest band in the world, they remained in contact. In 1964, Kirchherr photographed the Beatles during the making of their film, A Hard Day’s Night.
Kirchherr continued shooting bands in Hamburg for several years. In 1967 she married English drummer Gibson Kemp, the man who replaced Ringo Starr in Rory Storm and the Hurricanes. The couple would divorce seven years later. A second marriage for Kirchherr, this time to a German businessman, would also end in divorce.
The photographer’s iconic pictures of the Beatles’ early days have regularly been shown in galleries, reprinted in band histories and featured in various publications. Kirchherr believed her work’s lasting impact was due to the distinctiveness of the time.
“When I think of all the pictures I did – when I look at them now – I can see a change,” she explained in Hamburg Days. “Nobody will ever see it but me, but it’s about what those boys went through in a very short period. They went through such a personal change.”