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, has died at age 81.
She died Tuesday in her native Hamburg, days before her 82nd birthday, her friend Kai-Uwe Franz told The Associated Press. 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.”
According to the German publication Die Zeit, she died of a “short, serious illness.”
“God bless Astrid a beautiful human being,” Ringo Starr tweeted. George Harrison’s widow, Olivia Harrison, tweeted that Kirchherr was “so thoughtful and kind and talented, with an eye to capture the soul.”
God bless Astrid a beautiful human being And she took great photos peace and love 😎✌️🌟❤️🎶🎵🍒🥦☮️ pic.twitter.com/fGXqDbz5bW
— #RingoStarr (@ringostarrmusic) May 15, 2020
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 mesmerised 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, a decision which profoundly changed her.
“It was like a merry-go-round in my head, they looked absolutely astonishing,” Kirchherr later told Beatles biographer Bob Spitz.
“My whole life changed in a couple of minutes. All I wanted was to be with them and to know them.”
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, even though she spoke little English and he knew little German.
“Stuart was a very special person and he was miles ahead of everybody,” she told NPR in 2010.
“You know as far as intelligent and artistic feelings are concerned, he was miles ahead. So I learned a lot from him and because in the ’60s we had a very strange attitude towards being young, towards sex, towards everything.”
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 favoured black leather and greased back hair and gave wild, marathon performances.
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).
Kirchherr was liked and trusted by all of them, and her photographs captured a group still more interested in looking cool and “tough” than in being lovable. She took indelible black and white portraits, including John, Paul and George in leather and cowboy boots on a rooftop; all five with their instruments on an abandoned truck; and a moody closeup of John in an open fairground with Sutcliffe looming like a ghost in back. Self-portraits captured Kirchherr’s own distinctive looks – her high cheekbones and closely cut blonde hair.
Absolutely stunned to hear the news of Astrid passing. God bless you love. We shared some wonderful memories and the most amazing fun times. Condolences to family and friends, Pete (Petey) pic.twitter.com/lNduJ8EHHC
— Pete Best (@BeatlesPeteBest) May 15, 2020
“Absolutely stunned to hear the news of Astrid passing,” Best tweeted Friday.
“God bless you love. We shared some wonderful memories and the most amazing fun times.”