German photographer helped craft style of the early Beatles
NEW YORK — Astrid Kirchherr, the German photographer who shot some of the earliest and most striking images of the Beatles and helped shape their trend-setting visual style, died Tuesday at age 81.
She died in her native Hamburg, days before her 82nd birthday, her friend Kai-Uwe Franz said.
Her death was first announced by Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn, who tweeted Friday that Kirchherr made an “immeasurable” contribution to the group and was “intelligent, inspirational, innovative, daring, artistic, awake, aware, beautiful, smart, loving and uplifting.”
The German publication Die Zeit said she died of a “short, serious illness.”
Kirchherr was a photographer’s assistant in Hamburg
and part of the local art scene in 1960 when her then-boyfriend Klaus Voormann dropped in at a seedy club, the Kaiserkeller, and found himself mesmerized by a young British rock group: The five raw musicians from Liverpool had recently named themselves the Beatles. As she later recalled, Voormann then spent the next few days convincing Kirchherr to join him.
“It was like a merry-goround in my head, they looked absolutely astonishing,” Kirchherr later told Beatles biographer Bob Spitz.
Kirchherr had dreamed of photographing “charismatic” men and found her ideal subjects in the Beatles, especially their bassist at the time, Stuart Sutcliffe, a gifted painter. They quickly fell in love.
The Beatles in the early 1960s were nothing like the smiling superstars the world would soon know, and they seemed to have little in common with Kirchherr and her friends, young existentialists dubbed “Exies” by John Lennon. The rock group favored black leather and greased back hair. The James Dean lookalike Pete Best was the Beatles’ drummer, and Paul McCartney was playing guitar, along with Lennon and George Harrison. (Best was replaced in 1962 by Ringo Starr, and McCartney moved over to bass when Sutcliffe left and became engaged to Kirchherr).
Her love affair with Sutcliffe was tragically brief.
Sutcliffe died at 21 of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1962. Kirchherr married twice, but both marriages ended in divorce, and she would say she never got over Sutcliffe’s death.
“He was, and still is, the love of my life,” she told NPR in 2010.
George Harrison, left, Stuart Sutcliffe and John Lennon of the Beatles pose for a portrait.