Kirchherr met artist Stuart Sutcliffe in the Kaiserkeller bar in Hamburg in 1960 where he was playing bass with the Beatles and was later engaged to him before his untimely death in 1962.
Although Kirchherr admitted she has taken very few photographs since 1967 her early work has been exhibited in Hamburg, Bremen, London, Liverpool, New York City, Washington DC, Tokyo, Vienna, and at the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame. Kirchherr has published three limited edition books of photographs.
Astrid Kirchherr was born in 1938 in Hamburg Germany and is the daughter of a former executive of the German branch of the Ford Motor Company. During World War II she was evacuated to the safety of the Baltic Sea where she remembered seeing dead bodies on the shore after the ships Cap Arcona and the SS Deutschland had been bombed and sunk; and the destruction in Hamburg when she returned. Following her father's death she was raised by her mother Nielsa Kirchherr in Eimsbüttelerstraße in the wealthy Hamburg suburb of Altona.
After her graduation Kirchherr enrolled in the Meisterschule für Mode, Textil, Graphik und Werbung in Hamburg, as she wanted to study fashion design but demonstrated a talent for black and white photography. Reinhard Wolf, the school's main photographic tutor, convinced her to switch courses and promised that he would hire her as his assistant when she graduated. Kirchherr worked for Wolf as his assistant from 1959 until 1963.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s Kirchherr and her art school friends were involved in the European existentialist movement whose followers were nicknamed Exis by John Lennon. In 1995 she told BBC Radio Merseyside:
“Our philosophy then, because we were only little kids, was wearing black clothes and going around looking moody. Of course, we had a clue who Jean Paul Sartre was. We got inspired by all the French artists and writers, because that was the closest we could get. England was so far away, and America was out of the question. So France was the nearest. So we got all the information from France, and we tried to dress like the French existentialists. ... We wanted to be free, we wanted to be different, and tried to be cool, as we call it now.”
Kirchherr, Voormann, and Vollmer were friends who had all attended the Meisterschule, and shared the same ideas about fashion, culture and music. In 1960, after Kirchherr and Vollmer had had an argument with Voormann, he wandered down the Reeperbahn (in the St.Pauli district of Hamburg) and heard music coming from the Kaiserkeller club. Voormann walked in and watched a performance by a group called the Beatles. Voormann asked Kirchherr and Vollmer to listen to this new music, and after visiting the Kaiserkeller the next day, Kirchherr decided that all she wanted to do was to be as close to the Beatles as she could. They had never heard this new music called Rock n' Roll before, having previously only listened to Trad jazz, with some Nat King Cole and The Platters mixed in. The trio then visited the Kaiserkeller almost every night-arriving at 9 o'clock and sitting by the front of the stage. Kirchherr later said:
“It was like a merry-go-round in my head, they looked absolutely astonishing... My whole life changed in a couple of minutes. All I wanted was to be with them and to know them.”
Kirchherr later said that she, Voormann, and Vollmer felt guilty about being German, and about Germany's recent history. Meeting the Beatles was something very special for her, although she knew that English people would think that she ate sauerkraut, and would comment on her heavy German accent, but they made jokes about it together. Sutcliffe was fascinated by the trio, but especially Kirchherr, and thought they looked like "real bohemians." Bill Harry later said that when Kirchherr walked in, every head would immediately turn her way, and that she always captivated the whole room. Sutcliffe wrote to a friend that he could hardly take his eyes off her, and had tried to talk to Kirchherr during the next break, but she had already left the club. This was due to the strict German law at the time which prohibited young people from frequenting bars after 10 o'clock at night.
Sutcliffe managed to meet them eventually, and learned that all three had attended the Meisterschule, which was the same type of art college that Lennon and Sutcliffe had attended in Liverpool. Kirchherr asked the Beatles if they would mind letting her take photographs of them in a photo session, which impressed them, as other groups only had snapshots that were taken by friends. The next morning Kirchherr took photographs in a municipal park called "der Dom" which was close to the Reeperbahn, and in the afternoon she took them all (minus Best who decided not to go) to her mother's house in Altona. Kirchherr's bedroom (which was all in black, including the furniture, with silver foil on the walls and a large tree branch suspended from the ceiling) was decorated especially for Voormann, whom she had a relationship with, although after the visits to the Kaiserkeller their relationship became purely platonic. Kirchherr started dating Sutcliffe, although she always remained close friends with Voormann.
Kirchherr later supplied Sutcliffe and the other Beatles with Preludin, which, when taken with beer, made them feel euphoric and helped to keep them awake until the early hours of the morning. The Beatles had taken Preludin before, but it was only possible at that time to get Preludin with a doctor's prescription note, so Kirchherr's mother got them from a local chemist, who supplied them without asking questions. After meeting Kirchherr, Lennon filled his letters to Cynthia Powell (his girlfriend at the time) with "Astrid said this, Astrid did that" which made Powell jealous, until she read that Sutcliffe was in a relationship with Kirchherr. When Powell visited Hamburg with Dot Rhone (Paul McCartney's girlfriend at the time) in April 1961, they stayed at Kirchherr's house. In August 1963, Kirchherr met Lennon and Cynthia Lennon in Paris while they both there for a belated honeymoon, as Kirchherr was there with a girlfriend for a few days holiday. The four of them went from wine bar to wine bar, and finally ended up back at Kirchherr's lodgings, where all four fell asleep on Kirchherr's single bed. The Beatles met Kirchherr again in Hamburg in 1966 when they were touring Germany. Kirchherr gave Lennon the letters he'd written to Sutcliffe in 1961 and 1962 and Lennon said it was "the best present I've had in years."
The Beatles Haircut
Kirchherr is credited with inventing the Beatles moptop haircut although she disagrees and is quoted in The Beatles Off The Record by Keith Badman as saying:
“All that shit people said, that I created their hairstyle, that's rubbish! Lots of German boys had that hairstyle. Stuart had it for a long while and the others copied it. I suppose the most important thing I contributed to them was friendship.”
In 1995, Kirchherr told BBC Radio Merseyside:
“All my friends in art school used to run around with this sort of what you call Beatles haircut. And my boyfriend then, Klaus Voormann, had this hairstyle, and Stuart liked it very very much. He was the first one who really got the nerve to get the Brylcreem out of his hair and asking me to cut his hair for him. Pete Best (the Beatles original drummer) has really curly hair and it wouldn't work.”
Stuart Sutcliffe wrote to friends that he was infatuated with Kirchherr, and asked her friends which colors, films, books and painters she liked, and who she fancied. Best commented that the beginning of their relationship was, "like one of those fairy stories." Kirchherr and Sutcliffe got engaged in November 1960, and exchanged rings, as is the German custom. Sutcliffe later wrote to his parents that he was engaged to Kirchherr, which they were shocked to learn, as they thought he would give up his career as an artist. Sutcliffe later borrowed money from Kirchherr for the airfare to fly back to Liverpool in February 1961, although he returned to Hamburg in March.
Kirchherr and Sutcliffe went to Liverpool in the summer of 1961, as Kirchherr wanted to meet Sutcliffe's family (and to see Liverpool) before their marriage. Everybody was expecting a strange beatnik artist from Hamburg, but Kirchherr turned up at the Sutcliffe's house in Aigburth, Liverpool, bearing a single long-stemmed orchid in her hand as a present, and dressed in a round-necked cashmere sweater and tailored skirt. In 1962, Sutcliffe collapsed in the middle of an art class in Hamburg. He was suffering from intense headaches, and Kirchherr's mother had German doctors perform various checks on him, although they were unable to determine exactly what was causing the headaches. While living at the Kirchherrs' house in Hamburg his condition got worse. On 10 April 1962, Sutcliffe was taken to a hospital—Kirchherr rode with him in the ambulance—but Sutcliffe died before the ambulance reached the hospital. Three days later Kirchherr met the Beatles at the Hamburg airport and told them Sutcliffe died from a brain haemorrhage.
In 1964 Kirchherr became a freelance photographer, and with her colleague Max Scheler she took "behind the scenes" photographs of the Beatles during the filming of "A Hard Day's Night", as an assignment for the German STERN magazine. Harrison later asked Kirchherr to arrange the cover of his Wonderwall Music album in 1969. Kirchherr and Scheler put an advertisement in the Liverpool Echo in 1964, stating that any group who wanted their photograph taken in front of St. George's Hall would be paid £1 per musician, but over 200 groups turned up on the day, which meant Kirchherr and Scheler soon ran out of money.
Kirchherr didn't publish the photographs until 1995, in a book called Liverpool Days, which is a limited edition collection of black-and-white photographs. In 1999, a companion book called Hamburg Days was published (a two-volume limited edition) containing a set of photographs by Kirchherr and "memory drawings" by Voormann. The drawings are recollections of places and situations that Voormann clearly remembers, but Kirchherr had never photographed, or had lost the photographs.
Kirchherr described how difficult it was to be accepted as a female photographer in the 1960s:
“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 60s to be accepted. In the end I gave up. I've hardly taken a photo since 1967.”
Kirchherr was quoted as saying that When We Was Fab (Genesis Publications 2007) would be her last book of photographs:
“I have decided it is time to create one book in which I am totally involved so that it contains the pictures I like most, printed the way I would print them, even down to the text and design.... This book is me and that is why it will be the last one. The very last one.”
Kirchherr has expressed respect for other photographers, such as Annie Leibovitz (because of the humor in her work) Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Jim Rakete and Reinhard Wolf (German Wikipedia) and French film-makers François Truffaut, and Jean Cocteau. Kirchherr said that her favorite photos are the ones she took of Sutcliffe by the Baltic sea, and of Lennon and George Harrison in her attic room at 45a Eimsbütteler Strasse. She has expressed reservations about digital photography, saying that a photographer should concentrate on the art of photography and not on the technical results, although admitting that she knows nothing about computers, and is "afraid of the internet."
Kirchherr admits that she is not good at business as she is not organized enough, and has never really looked after the negatives of her photographs to prove ownership. Her business partner Ulf Krüger—a songwriter and record producer—successfully found many of Astrid's negatives and photographs and had them copyrighted, although he believes that Kirchherr has lost £500,000 over the years because of people using her photographs without permission. In July 2001 Kirchherr visited Liverpool to open an exhibition of her work at the Mathew Street art gallery, which is close to the former site of the Cavern Club. She appeared as a guest at the city's Beatles Week Festival during the August Bank Holiday. Kirchherr's work has been exhibited internationally in places such as, Hamburg, Bremen, London, Liverpool, New York City, Washington, D.C., Tokyo, Vienna, and at the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame.
In 1967, Kirchherr married English drummer Gibson Kemp, who had replaced Ringo Starr in Rory Storm and the Hurricanes. The marriage ended in divorce after seven years. Astrid subsequently married a German businessman, but they divorced in 1985.
Kirchherr worked as an adviser on the film Backbeat, which portrayed Kirchherr, Sutcliffe and the Beatles during their early days in Hamburg. She was especially impressed with Stephen Dorff (who played Sutcliffe in the film) commenting that he was the right age (19-years-old at the time) and the way he smoked, talked and that his gestures were so like Sutcliffe's that she had goose pimples. Kirchherr was portrayed in the film by actress Sheryl Lee. Since the mid-1990s Kirchherr and Krüger have operated the K&K photography shop in Hamburg, offering custom vintage prints, books and artwork for sale. K&K periodically helps arrange Beatles' conventions and other Beatles' events in the Hamburg area.