UPDATED with Ringo Starr reaction: Astrid Kirchherr, photographer and early friend of the Beatles whose avant-garde style helped transform the young band from ’50s-era greasers to moptop trend-setters, died Wednesday in her native Hamburg, Germany. She was 81.
The German newspaper Die Zeit reports that Kirchher died following a “short, serious illness,” with no additional details provided.
Beatles drummer Ringo Starr tweeted a tribute today, saying: “God bless Astrid a beautiful human being And she took great photos peace and love.”
Kirchherr, along with her friend Klaus Voormann, befriended the Beatles during the group’s early, pre-Beatlemania Hamburg club residencies, and the pair’s fashion sense — they were part of the city’s “Exi” (short for “existentialist”) youth subculture — quickly entranced original bassist Stuart Sutcliffe. Soon, the biker jackets and greased, Elvis-inspired pompadours so beloved by the teenage John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison were history, replaced with the style that would spark a worldwide fashion revolution: black Sartre-like turtleneck sweaters and medium-length (though it seemed impossibly long to most American fathers) hair, the sides actually approaching the ear tops and floppy bangs hitting (and later covering) the eyebrows.
Although Kirchherr always would insist that she didn’t invent the look, noting that the style already was popular among Hamburg’s art students, the Beatles were forever — and publicly — grateful. “Astrid,” Harrison once said, “was the one who influenced our image more than anyone else. It made us look good.”
Harrison’s widow, Olivia Harrison, tweeted today, “Astrid is and was the sweetest woman, so thoughtful and kind and talented, with an eye to capture a soul. Our family loved her and none more than George. I am truly saddened but honoured to have known her.”
Adding significantly to the band’s early visibility was Kirchherr’s moody, stars-in-the-making photographs, including the now-classic series of portraits — pre-moptops — taken in 1960 at a Hamburg fairground. She later photographed the band with their new hairstyles in a series of stark, black-and-white shots that would inspire the Beatles’ classic album cover for With the Beatles (or, in America, Meet the Beatles). Although the heavily shadowed cover often is incorrectly attributed to Kirchherr, the actual photographer was Robert Freeman, his approach strongly indebted to Kirchherr’s portraits of the band.
“Absolutely stunned to hear the news of Astrid passing,” Pete Best, the Beatles’ original drummer, tweeted today. “God bless you love. We shared some wonderful memories and the most amazing fun times.”
Kirchherr’s impact on the band was not, however, strictly professional nor stylistic: Shortly after meeting, she and Sutcliffe fell in love and, in November 1960, got engaged to be married. Sutcliffe did not follow his bandmates back to England, staying behind in Hamburg with Kirchherr to study painting. While living with Kirchherr at her mother’s home, Stutcliffe began experiencing excruciating, blinding headaches.
It was Kirchherr who, on April 13, 1962, met the band at the Hamburg Airport to tell them that Sutcliffe had died several days earlier. Lennon, in particular, was devastated.
The 1994 early Beatles biopic Backbeat prominently featured the Sutcliffe-Kirchherr relationship, with Sheryl Lee as Kirchherr and Stephen Dorff as Sutcliffe.
Kirchherr later would marry drummer Gibson Kemp, who had replaced Ringo Starr in the band Rory Storm and the Hurricanes after Starr joined the Beatles (replacing Best). In 1964, Kirchherr shot behind-the-scenes photos on the set of A Hard Day’s Night that were collected and published in the 2008 book Yesterday: The Beatles Once Upon a Time, and she photographed a Beatle one final time in 1968, for Harrison’s solo album Wonderwall Music. She subsequently would become an interior designer.
Kirchherr’s Beatles photographs were collected in a 2018 book Astrid Kirchherr with The Beatles, published by Damiani.
In a tweet today, Beatles biographer Mark Lewisohn paid tribute: “Danke schön, Astrid Kirchherr. Intelligent, inspirational, innovative, daring, artistic, awake, aware, beautiful, smart, loving and uplifting friend to many. Her gift to the Beatles was immeasurable.”
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