Astrid Kirchherr, whose death aged 81 was announced at the weekend, was the first photographer – maybe even the first person – to recognise the aesthetic appeal of The Beatles. I have always thought that the pre-fame pictures she took in Hamburg of John, Paul, George, Stuart Sutcliffe and, to a lesser extent, Pete Best, reflect not just the innocence of young lads away from home for the first time but also a hunger, not just for food, which wasn’t plentiful, for something better in their lives. Perhaps Astrid instinctively knew that something better, something beyond their wildest dreams, lay around the corner.
Astrid’s most famous early photograph of five Beatles was taken in November of 1960 at Heiligengeistfeld, an open space in Hamburg where a travelling funfair has just set up for a month’s residence. None of them are smiling and though Pete and George look at the camera, the other three look distracted, detached, as if something in the distance has caught their eye. Four of them are lovingly cradling guitars: George his Futurama III, the nearest cheap guitar to a Fender Stratocaster; John his first Rickenbacker, newly bought in Hamburg; Paul the Hofner Club 40 that belonged to John, strung left-handed so he appears to be playing it upside down; and Stuart in ever-present shades with the Hofner 333 bass (aka 500/4 or 5) he bought with the proceeds from the sale of one of his paintings. On the left and slightly apart from the others stands Pete Best, his sticks in his hand, his snare drum on a stand.
I and many others saw this picture for the first time in Hunter Davies’ 1968 Beatles biography. Accustomed only to seeing them in their early years with fringes that covered their foreheads, I can remember thinking, ‘Wow! I never realised they once looked like this.’ The Beatles’ premier archivist and biographer Mark Lewisohn identifies this picture as, ‘The definitive image of the group before they attained fame.’ On his Twitter feed Mark wrote of Astrid: ‘Intelligent, inspirational, innovative, daring, artistic, awake, beautiful, smart, loving and uplifting friend to many. Her gift to The Beatles was immeasurable.’
Astrid took many more pictures of The Beatles, both collectively and individually, all of them in black and white, her favourite medium.* There’s another from that fairground of George and John sitting on the bonnet of a truck with Stuart in front of them, holding his bass at an odd angle, pointing to the ground. Then there’s the one of Teddy-boy John in the foreground and Stuart, unfocused, behind him, and a similar one with Paul in the foreground, as well as individual shots of George and John at the same location. Astrid also took many moody shots of Stuart in her bedroom-cum-studio, including several with herself in the frame. Stuart, of course, became her lover and would subsequently remain in Hamburg with her following The Beatles’ second visit to Hamburg, at the end of March 1961.
Astrid and Stuart
Had it not been for a tiff with her boyfriend Klaus Voormann Astrid’s lens might never have settled on the group that in 1960 spent three and a half months in Hamburg, the final two at the Kaiserkeller. After the row Klaus mooched off on his own and heard The Beatles as he passed by outside the club. Intrigued, he went inside, liked what he saw and heard, and brought Astrid and another friend, Jürgen Vollmer, to see them the following night. By all accounts this trio of young Germans, art students all, became fixated by the group and over time influenced them in other ways, most notably in the clothes they wore and by persuading them to abandon their quiffs and comb their hair forward, a look Astrid first gave to Stuart.
These three friends were unquestionably the first people in the world to see something in The Beatles that went beyond the music they played, an attraction that in the right hands would translate into a perception of physical male beauty that defied the conventional norms of the 1950s, upsetting the world in the process. It was a secret they shared between themselves, at least until Brian Epstein walked in on The Beatles at the Cavern almost a year to the day after Astrid photographed them at that fairground.
Stuart Sutcliffe, whose talents as a painter far exceeded his skills as a musician, died from a brain haemorrhage in Hamburg on April 10, 1962. Astrid was heartbroken but maintained her relationship with The Beatles, photographing them on the set of A Hard Day’s Night and visiting Liverpool where she took photographs of fans waiting outside the Cavern. On that same trip she took pictures of George and Ringo in their shared London flat and at John and wife Cynthia’s flat in Emperors Gate in Kensington. The first real holiday Paul, George and Ringo had as their star rose, in April 1963, was a trip to Tenerife to see Astrid and Klaus, while John went to Spain with Brian. Astrid caught up with all of them when they came to Hamburg on the German tour in June 1966, and with John when he was filming How I Won The War in Germany in September of that year. A new portrait she took of George, with whom she maintained the closest contact, appeared on the back cover his album Wonderwall Music in 1968.
Astrid later worked as an interior designer and in a restaurant. For many years she earned nothing from her widely published photographs but eventually secured copyright, held exhibitions and published three books.
“The most important thing I gave The Beatles was my friendship,” she said.