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.
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.” He referred to what is believed to be the first photo of the group as it existed on the Hamburg club scene.
After coming across the group at a gig in 1960, Kirchherr 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 amublance with him — or Best.
Kirchherr remained friends with the band after his 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.
Kirchherr told Gross about the origins of the Beatlecut. Voorman “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 outfit that came to be associated with the group. 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.
She later became an interior designer and opened a photography shop. 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.”