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Remembering Astrid Kirchherr Share This on LinkedIn   Tweet This   Forward This

16 May 2020

German photographer Astrid Kirchherr, who photographed the Beatles before they went all-in for the haircut she gave her boyfriend, died last week after a short illness. She was 81.

She was 22 when another boyfriend convinced her to catch the Beatles performing on a small stage in Reeperbahn. The convincing took a couple of days because "Reeperbahn is not a place where young ladies in the '50s or '60s were to be seen," she told Terry Gross in a 2008 Fresh Air interview.

What she found on stage were four beautiful boys, a photographer's dream.

There were five Beatles in the band then. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, drummer Pete Best and bassist Stuart Sutcliffe. They agreed to let her photograph them.

She shot them with her Rolleicord at the Hamburger Dom, a public park near the Reeperbahn. Her photographs were a step above all the snapshots by friends other bands used then.

After a few months, she and Sutcliffe fell in love and announced their engagement in November 1960.

Sutcliffe quit the band to move in with Kirchherr and attend art school in Hamburg to pursue his painting. But he tragically died of a brain hemorrhage in April 1962 at the age of 22 before they could marry.

"He was, and still is, the love of my life," Kirchherr said.

Born in 1938 in Hamburg to a former Ford executive, she was evacuated to the Baltic Sea during World War II. After the war, she returned to Hamburg where she eventually went to art school to study fashion design.

But the art school's photography teacher Reinhard Wolf convinced her to switch to photography, promising her a job as his assistant when she graduate. She worked for him from 1959 to 1963.

It was the haircut Kirchherr gave Sutcliffe to cover his ears, which stuck out, that inspired the band's mop-top look. It was a popular look in Germany at the time, she said, dismissing her influence. In fact, it didn't work for Best because he had curly hair.

Her early black-and-white images documented the era as well as the band's rise. She exhibited in Japan, Australia, Germany, Austria, the United States and Great Britain and published three photo books while continuing her association with the Beatles after Sutcliffe's death.

As an artistic collaborator with the band, she was the set photographer on their first movie, A Hard Day's Night. In 1968 she shot a session for George Harrison's solo project Wonderwall Music.

That was one of the last images Kirccherr took because, she said, she wasn't sure if she was any good or just famous because of the Beatles. She pursued interior design instead.

Kirchherr recalled her decision:

Every magazine and newspaper wanted me to photograph the Beatles again. Or they wanted my old stuff, even if it was out of focus, whether they were nice or not. They wouldn't look at my other work. It was very hard for a girl photographer in the sixties to be accepted. In the end I gave up. I've hardly taken a photo since 1967.

In 1967 she married Gibson Kemp, an English drummer, divorcing seven years later. She worked as a barmaid, interior designer and for a music publisher. In the mid-1990s she sold custom vintage prints, books and artwork at the K&K photography store in Hamburg, in which she was a partner. A second marriage also ended in divorce.

Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn announced her death on Twitter, calling her an "intelligent, inspirational, innovative, daring, artistic, awake, aware, beautiful, smart, loving and uplifting friend to many."

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