Astrid Kirchherr, the acclaimed German photographer who created the earliest formal group portrait of The Beatles, died on Tuesday 12 May 2020. She was 81, and passed away a few days short of her 82nd birthday.
Astrid’s archive needs no introduction to Beatles fans. She played an instrumental part in creating and documenting their early look, not just from behind the lens, but in influencing their hairstyles and clothes. As George Harrison famously put it:
“Astrid was the one, really, who influenced our image more than anybody. She made us look good. She was the one who had the leather kecks and the Beatles haircut.”
It all started in Autumn 1960. Close your eyes and you can picture it. Hamburg. The Reeperbahn. A young photographer visits the Kaiserkeller bar at the insistence of her boyfriend to watch a five piece rock and roll band from England. Some moments are life-changing.
Astrid Kirchherr was that young photographer. Just 22, and cutting her professional teeth working as a studio assistant to the German photographer Reinhart Wolf, she witnessed something we Beatles fans —we mortals—can only dream of. The chance to get up close to and actually hear the Beatles at their peak (so said John Lennon) playing for hours on end, night after night.
She 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.”
Befriending the band came next, and falling in love with bassist Stuart Sutcliffe. In late 1960 she created the first formal—arguably professional—group portrait of The Beatles. The scene was the Heiligengeistfeld ( Holy Ghost field) fairground in central Hamburg, and Astrid arranged the band-members with their instruments on a trailer with the twisting metal structure of the rollercoaster in the background. George, John and Paul were in central positions, with Pete and Stuart on the flanks. Isn’t it funny how things like that happen—a random set-up or the group’s ‘natural’ position, with the leader, John, plum-centre?
Astrid made this photograph on medium format film—a square negative—but she always preferred to present the image cropped into a landscape format. As a result many people don’t immediately realise that the structure in the background is a rollercoaster. This becomes clear when you see the complete square frame.