Astrid Kirchherr is best known for her striking photos of The Beatles taken during their first stay in Hamburg, which were later reproduced around the world. Ironically, though, people would probably be more familiar with the photographs than they would with the photographer’s name.
In a sense, it could be said that The Beatles’ success overshadowed Kirchherr’s budding career as a photographer in much the same way their success also overshadowed Tony Sheridan’s career as a musician.
But unlike Sheridan, who continued to perform, the constant focus on her association with The Beatles caused Kirchherr to stop taking photographs altogether. Nonetheless, her haunting portraits of the young Beatles provide poignant documentation of their Hamburg years.
Kirchherr was born in Hamburg in 1938, the daughter of a Ford Motor Company executive. She grew up in the suburb of Altona, and after leaving school in 1953, she decided to develop her interest in painting and drawing by enrolling at Hamburg’s Meister Schule in 1957 to study art.
“I originally wanted to become a fashion designer,” she said. “But when I was in my second term we had a new professor, Reinhart Wolf, the photographer. And I immediately felt that was the thing to do; I stopped everything and just did photography because he was such a great teacher. We became very good friends, and he taught me an awful lot; Mr Wolf’s whole personality and the pictures he had done himself really turned me on to photography. Sometimes you just need a little peek into something which will then influence your whole life, and that’s what Mr Wolf did by encouraging me and showing me all his pictures.”
By the time Kirchherr left the Meister Schule, Wolf offered her a job as his assistant. “He had by then built a big studio,” she said. “We used to do advertising stuff because that makes the most money. Some of it was quite interesting, but most of it was pretty boring. My main interest was in people, portrait photography. That’s what I always wanted to be, a portrait photographer. But as you know, to live on portrait photography is very hard.”
As a result, Kirchherr was only able to work on her portrait photography in her spare time, but Wolf allowed her to use his studio and darkroom. She eventually took pictures for album covers, but found the experience unsatisfying: “They told me what to do, so there’s not much artistic feeling about that,” she said.
“And I did one cover for Tony Sheridan, but that was later. And some other ones I can’t remember; I think it was mostly for classical music. But my main interests were people and portrait photography, all the time.”
By this time, Kirchherr’s circle of friends included artist/designer Klaus Voorman, who had met Kirchherr at the Meister Schule and was now her boyfriend (he would later design the cover of The Beatles’ album Revolver and play on their solo albums), and Jurgen Vollmer, another photographer.
Though the three friends regularly spent time together, visits to Hamburg’s nightclubs were not yet part of their schedule.
“There weren’t any clubs, really,” Kirchherr said. “For amusement, we listened to Johnny Mathis and Frank Sinatra and The Platters. But most of all I liked classical music and jazz before I ever came across rock ‘n’ roll. And the first time I heard rock ‘n’ roll was by Elvis and Bill Haley. I liked it, but I didn’t particularly like the look of Elvis and I, of course, didn’t like the look of Bill Haley! So the music was fine, it was all right, but I never got over-excited with it.”
But Kirchherr’s feelings about rock ‘n’ roll would change quite suddenly in October 1960, due to a quarrel she had with Voorman.
After wandering the streets of Hamburg, Voorman found himself in the Reeperbahn, where the electrifying sound of raw rock ‘n’ roll drew him into the Kaiserkeller, where Rory Storm and the Hurricanes were working through their set.
Following the Hurricanes, The Beatles took the stage, and their act overwhelmed Voorman even further. Shortly after, he convinced Kirchherr and Vollmer to accompany him to the club, where they were equally won over by the groups, particularly The Beatles.
“I’d never, ever experienced anybody like that before,” remembered Kirchherr, who was captivated not only by the band’s sound but also their presence. “It was everything,” she said. “It was a mixture of their great gift and talent and their wonderful looks and their charm and their individuality, which really impressed me. And most of all, their personality.”
Kirchherr’s next move was obvious: she had to take their photographs. “They had such great faces,” she said. “And when I asked them to do pictures of them, they were so sweet and they did everything I wanted them to do. They were wonderful models. I enjoyed taking pictures of them.”
About a week after first seeing the group, Kirchherr took them to Der Dom, a local park where a funfair was being held. The band posed with its instruments, the most famous picture being a rare shot of all five members together, looking tough yet somehow vulnerable.
“That’s the way I saw them, at the time,” Kirchherr explained, “being dressed like teddy boys and acting like teddy boys, but they were still so individual, each one of them. That’s what I wanted to show, in my pictures; that they were not just little teddy boys, that there’s something more behind it all. Behind their faces and behind their eyes, each one of them. So that is what interested me, by taking their pictures. And I’ve got an awful lot of pictures; if you take a picture of a person, you do at least three or four rolls, but sometimes there’s only one picture good on it. So the rest you never show anybody, they’re kept in a hiding place. So I really don’t know how many pictures I’ve got.”
Kirchherr, Voorman, Vollmer and their friends soon became regulars at the Kaiserkeller, the first intellectual following The Beatles had ever had.
At first, the cultured art students mixed uneasily with the Kaiserkeller’s usual rough clientele, but as more of the “exis” (as John Lennon referred to the students, taken from “existentialist”) arrived, the two disparate groups developed a tolerance for one another due to their mutual love for The Beatles.
Though they were fans of the group, no one suspected they were observing history in the making. “None of us ever thought The Beatles would be changing the world, as far as music is concerned,” admitted Kirchherr. “We used to make jokes about it. George used to say, ‘Oh, you just wait when we are as big as The Shadows!’ And John would say, ‘Oh, no, no, no, no, not The Shadows, we want to be as big as Elvis!’
But we just joked about it. Nobody was serious. And I didn’t expect them to be changing the world. Not at all. I knew they would go somewhere, each one of them individually because they were highly talented and highly intelligent and individualists. But I never ever expected this great fame at all.”
In addition to taking photographs, Kirchherr and her friends influenced the group in other ways, imbuing the band members with an artistic sensibility not common to a rough-and-tumble rock ‘n’ roll group.
Shortly after meeting them, Kirchherr became romantically involved with Stuart Sutcliffe (pictured at left), and she soon introduced him to her own distinctive ideas in clothes design: smart leather suits and jackets without lapels (a few years later, Vollmer would try to persuade Lennon and McCartney to wear bell-bottomed trousers, but they refused, afraid of looking too “queer”).
Kirchherr also styled Sutcliffe’s hair in the “pilzen kopf” (“mushroom head”) cut worn by other bohemian young men.
Though the laughter of the others prompted Sutcliffe to quickly comb his hair back into the usual ducktail, he eventually adopted the new look on a permanent basis. Harrison was the next member of the group to approach Kirchherr about having his hair styled in what would be known as the “Beatle cut” in a few years’ time.
But most importantly, Sutcliffe’s romance with Kirchherr marked the beginning of the end of his tenure with the group. The two became engaged in late 1960, and during The Beatles’ second season in Hamburg in 1961, Sutcliffe elected to remain in the city with Kirchherr, enrolling at Hamburg’s State School of Art.
But Sutcliffe and Kirchherr remained a part of The Beatles’ inner circle, attending their shows regularly, with Sutcliffe occasionally sitting in for a laugh.
In 1962 The Beatles would return to Hamburg three more times to play at the Star Club, by which time Sutcliffe would be dead from a brain haemorrhage.
Within another year, The Beatles, with their new drummer Ringo Starr, would be the rising stars in the British hit parade, and on the verge of conquering the world. They returned to Hamburg one final time on 26 June 1966, at the end of a tour of Germany.
By that time, Kirchherr’s pictures of the group had appeared in newspapers across the globe, and on such album covers as Best Of The Beatles, a 1966 release featuring songs by Pete Best.
Her dramatic style of photographing the group in half-shadow also inspired the cover photograph of the With The Beatles/Meet The Beatles albums. It was the height of Beatlemania, but Kirchherr received no money, or recognition, for her photographs.
“The thing is, when I did the pictures, nobody knew them,” she explained. “So each one of them got a big pile of pictures for their mums and dads and aunties and everybody. And when journalists started to become interested in The Beatles, they used to ask for pictures, so they gave them the pictures I did. But because I did the pictures for them personally, I didn’t stamp them [with a photographer’s credit]. So nobody knew who had done them. And my pictures went all round the world and I never got a penny for it.”
Nor did she receive recognition for her pictures of other English groups. “I did a lot of pictures,” she said. “The Undertakers, Cliff Bennett, Rory Storm, King Size Taylor and Gibson Kemp [whom Kirchherr would later marry]; you name them and I took their pictures! But it was the same thing again. We became friends, and I liked some of their faces, and I said, ‘Come on, I’ll take some pictures of you.’ I never got paid for it, but that’s my fault; I’m not blaming anybody. When you do things like that, you don’t think about it. Especially the Beatles pictures, they are my closest friends and they enjoyed the pictures so much and loved them so very much, I just gave them to them.
“But my other pictures are hardly shown,” she continued. “Everyone is just interested in my Beatles pictures. Some of them were shown when I had an exhibition in Japan [in March 1994] and they didn’t only want my Beatles pictures, they wanted the ones I chose. So that was quite an interesting exhibition because it didn’t only show Beatles pictures.”
And despite her impressive portfolio, Kirchherr also found it difficult to develop a career as a photographer. “In those days, it was a man’s world, really,” she said. “And there weren’t many women who were photographers.” But in 1964, her association with The Beatles did lead to an assignment for Stern magazine.
“The Beatles were at their highest point of fame, and no journalist could get near them,” Kirchherr explained. “So a friend of mine, Max Scheler, who was working for Stern magazine, asked me if I could help him by introducing him to The Beatles. And so I said, ‘Well, I’ll ask them.’
“And so I gave George and John a call and told them the situation,” she continued. “And they said, ‘Well, it’s all right if you come over, and you can take pictures, but only if they pay you for it. If they don’t pay you anything, forget it.’ So that’s what I told Max, and he cleared all that with Stern and that is how we were invited to be with them on the train when they did A Hard Day’s Night (1964) (pictured at right) and went to their homes. George and Ringo used to share a flat then, in London, and I stayed there. And so after the London thing, we went to Liverpool and took pictures there as well, of all the unknown groups in Liverpool.”
With Beatlemania then in full swing, it was easy for Kirchherr to get a sense of how things had changed for the group in the previous four years. “They had an awful lot of stress going on,” she said. “It wasn’t anything like in the good old Hamburg days. And everybody was screaming and they couldn’t walk in the road anymore. But our relationship hadn’t changed. To me, we were friends and that’s it, if they are The Beatles or not.” Kirchherr would soon become caught up in the madness surrounding The Beatles herself, though to a slightly lesser degree.
Thirty years later, Kirchherr’s and Scheler’s photographs of The Beatles and their hometown would appear in Genesis Publications’ limited-edition book Liverpool Days. Kirchherr’s friendship with the group is clearly evident in the shots of her in Harrison’s parents’ house going through his birthday presents, and in Harrison’s and Starr’s London flat, Starr teaching her a new dance. And there are also evocative shots of children playing games in the streets of Liverpool.
But the situation may not have been as comfortable as it appeared. In a new introduction to the 1985 edition of The Beatles, Hunter Davies makes a reference to an assignment Kirchherr received from a “famous German magazine,” quoting her as saying, “John said I should agree. I might as well make some money out of it for a change. This other photographer took some nasty pictures of them when he shouldn’t have done. They used all his.”
Kirchherr was now working as a freelance assistant and stylist. “I liked styling,” she said, “because that is something creative and you can get your own ideas across and it’s much more creative than just being an assistant. If, for example, the photographer has got to do a still life, the photographer tells the stylist what ideas he’s got, and the stylist has got to get it together; that means the location, what things he would like to have in the still life. Styling I always liked very much.”
But though Kirchherr was also trying to get people interested in her own work, it was only her Beatles connection that interested the media. “When The Beatles were still going ’round on tour, there were people phoning me every day,” she recalled, “wanting an interview and wanting to meet me and doing this and that and everything. I didn’t like that at all. They do misinterpret you all the time. All they wanted to know is how this hairstyle came to be. Which is nothing; it’s so stupid! But that’s all they wanted.
“I told Hunter and I told Ray [Coleman], and they did the right story, that I only cut Stuart’s and George’s hair,” Kirchherr continued. “I never cut John’s and Paul’s hair, because Jurgen Vollmer did that. But all the press in the whole world, they say Astrid, the one who invented The Beatles haircut. And that’s stupid. They wrote that I was a hairdresser and mad things! I just got fed up with it, so I’d rather say nothing.
“And they still wrote about me: that I was homeless, and really weird things. Albert Goldman [in The Lives Of John Lennon] wrote that I was a witch and I had a circle of people round me. Can you imagine it; this man has never spoken to me! And that is why I couldn’t be bothered talking to people about it. I wanted to start going on and doing my thing, portrait photography, but nobody was interested in my other photography except of The Beatles. So I was completely fed up and gave it up.”
One of Kirchherr’s last published photographs was a shot of Harrison taken for the inner sleeve of his solo debut album, Wonderwall Music.
As the years passed, Kirchherr left photography behind though her past nonetheless managed to catch up with her. Voorman introduced her to a friend of his, Ulf Kruger, who one day asked Kirchherr about the proceeds from her photos. “He just asked me, ‘You must be quite well off with all your money from your Beatles pictures,'” she remembered.
“And I said, ‘You’re joking!’ And he said, ‘Well, we’ve got to do something about that. Would you like me to get your things together for you?’ And so I very happily said, ‘Yes, please,’ and that’s what he did. And ever since, he has been working with my pictures; he’s organising exhibitions and posters and everything. And so things are happening. Not only happening, but I get paid for it. And that’s a change.”
As a result of having finally secured management, Kirchherr’s photos were exhibited more frequently; in 1994, exhibits were held in London, Japan, New York and Washington, D.C. Kruger also looked after Voorman’s and Vollmer’s work (Vollmer published his own book of Hamburg photos, Rock ‘n’ Roll Times, in 1982, a year later in the USA).
Kirchherr’s involvement in the BackBeat film (1994) also brought her, and Sutcliffe, greater recognition for the roles they played in The Beatles’ development. Kirchherr agreed to be a participant in the film’s creation because of director Iain Softley’s assurances that the film would focus on Sutcliffe, not The Beatles.
“I met Iain 10 years ago,” she recalled. “He phoned me and asked if he could come to see me in Hamburg because he was interested in doing a movie about Stuart. And he was the first one who asked me about Stuart only. So I thought, well, I want to know what he’s got to say, and I said, ‘Yeah, Okay, come over and see me.’ And he did and we got on very well together. And all through these 10 years, he never disappointed me; that he didn’t want to sneak in doing a Beatles movie and was just telling me it’s about Stuart.”
Once the film was released, Kirchherr found herself in a new situation: giving interviews. After her initial experiences with the press in the ’60s, Kirchherr had stopped doing interviews, with, she says, two exceptions: Hunter Davies and Ray Coleman (though her quotes in Philip Norman’s Shout! do appear to be direct quotes). But in the wake of BackBeat, she has found it to be a more welcome experience.
“It has changed now,” she said. “Because of the movie, they are more interested in ‘What was Stuart like?’ and ‘Tell me about Stuart.’ Journalists ask me about him because they want to get to know him. And of course they ask me about John and George and Paul, but that’s all right, and I see that as pretty natural and normal because they were Stuart’s best friends. Before, it was just so ridiculous I didn’t like to talk about it.”
“And the wonderful thing is that, through the movie, people recognise Stuart,” she said. “They know his name now. And that is what I like. And that is what I wanted, so that people know him, and don’t say, ‘Oh, well, a fifth Beatle, who was that? Was that Pete Best?’ And that is why I helped doing the movie. Because I wanted his name to be realized. And I wanted his wonderful art to be shown to the public. And you know what it’s like when you want to put an exhibition into an art gallery of somebody nobody knows? You don’t get one foot in. But now, because of the movie, Stuart’s sister is getting offers from well-known art galleries to show his pictures. And that is why it was all worthwhile.”
Astrid Kirchherr passed away on 13 May 2020, a few days before her 82nd birthday.