By Edward Achorn
A beautiful woman died in Hamburg on Wednesday at the age of 81, a few days short of her 82nd birthday. I will always love her from afar.
Astrid Kirchherr will be remembered as the artist who crafted perhaps the most striking photographs of the Beatles ever taken — when they were unknowns, working all night, every night, in a seedy club on the Reeperbahn, in what George Harrison called “the naughtiest city in the world.” It was there the Beatles honed their craft.
A young woman from an upper-middle-class German family, Kirchherr immediately recognized the special qualities of these young English men, as individuals, looking beyond their guitars and leather gear. She somehow saw the John Lennon we only gradually came to understand — a tough rocker on outside but vulnerable underneath, scarred by his mother and father’s decision to leave him with an aunt to be raised. She saw the sweetness in the rawboned 17-year-old George Harrison that, as long as he lived, formed the flip side of his irritation with the hollowness of celebrity. She captured the prettiness but determination of Paul McCartney, destined to work harder than any of the others for endless acclaim.
These are priceless artifacts of the early years of rock ‘n’ roll, offering brilliant insights into the Beatles before Ringo Starr was even in the band.
She took her art seriously, and she took the Beatles seriously, virtually before anyone else did.
“I always took my friends seriously in what they were doing,” she said in a 1994 INTERVIEW. “For me the music of the Beatles then was serious and very, very serious art. So I couldn’t take a picture of John laughing his head off or pulling funny faces because he was a serious artist, even when he was only 20.
“I respected them even though they were young, wild boys from Liverpool — because they weren’t just that to me.”
She got it.
You can see some of her superb work HERE.
Kirchherr first set her eyes on the Beatles in October 1960 at the Kaiserkeller club, dragged there by her friend Klaus Voorman, who later became an acclaimed artist (creating the cover of the Beatles’ “Revolver”) and bass player (performing on George’s “All Things Must Pass” and John’s “Imagine” albums and many other works).
She “fell in love that very first night” with the striking young man playing bass in the band — Stuart Sutcliffe, John Lennon’s former roommate and classmate at the Liverpool College of Art. Sutcliffe, whose budding talent was recognized by experienced artists, wore sunglasses on stage. Harrison later described him as the “artistic director” of the Beatles, helping them develop their famous haircut, among other things. Lennon had talked him into joining the Beatles — indeed, into using an art award to buy his bass guitar — but Sutcliffe’s heart wasn’t really in it.
He quit the band, became engaged to Astrid and remained in Hamburg. There, he died at 21 of a cerebral hemorrhage. All of this gets a reasonably accurate treatment in the movie “Backbeat.”
After the Beatles’ first explosion of fame, Lennon and Harrison visited Kirchherr in her house in Hamburg, and went upstairs to their late friend’s attic studio. She took one of her most beautiful photos there, of a morose Lennon with Harrison standing behind him, offering support, their faces a study of shadow and light. Their love for each other was the essence of the Beatles, until they had to break apart.
That photo may have inspired the iconic cover of “With the Beatles” (“Meet the Beatles” in America), taken by Bob Freeman. “I’ve got this idea, and I don’t know if it’s true, that the Beatles told him to take a picture like Astrid used to do because that half-lit idea was not his style at all,” she said.
Nearly sixty years have passed since Astrid Kirchherr met the Beatles. She popped up from time to time on Beatles documentaries, invariably offering thoughtful and sensitive insights. Whenever I saw her face on the screen, I looked forward to hearing something intelligent and valuable.
She made the world a more beautiful place. Rest in peace.
(Edward Achorn is the author of three acclaimed books about American history.)