You don’t become hyper-iconic, as biographer Mark Lewisohn jokingly dubbed the Beatles on Twitter, without the right pictures.
But you need someone to see what others haven’t yet. Or, perhaps, you need someone to believe in your worth from the start.
Astrid Kirchherr saw magic in the pre-fame Beatles.
“When I first met the Beatles in the Kaiserkeller in Hamburg,” as she remembered in 2006, “their unbelievable stage presence struck me with tremendous power.”
“Their musicality, their good looks, and their spot-on humor—I had never experienced anything like it,” Kirchherr recalls, comparing the pull to that of a “magnet.”
But it was her kind confidence, bohemian lifestyle, and dramatic Exi-look (short hair and black leather) that attracted the lads to the convertible-driving Kirchherr. She was the most captivating member of a trio that included Jürgen Vollmer and Klaus Voorman, two more German art students who also befriended the Beatles.
In 1960, the rocking Beatle boys were barely getting their clothes washed. Their cramped, dirty living situation at the club involved sharing a room, where they slept (or, rather, “slept” given the strippers and other “chicks” they were picking up).
Astrid’s clean and intriguing home, with its tree-branches for decorations, felt like a haven to the barely-20 somethings whom she lovingly fed and cared for, as George Harrison recalled.
One of those branches appears at the top of the mirror in the self-portrait that has been circulating widely since Kirchherr’s May 12, 2020 death. That photograph, a testament to her own iconicity, projects the same kind of tender-strong self-possession Kirchherr would expose of the Beatles when she took their pictures.
She did not, as the legend goes, invent their mop-top, which she herself has clarified, “Lots of German boys had that hairstyle.” (See Lewisohn or my chapter in The Beatles in Context for more on that.)
Astrid identifies “friendship” as her primary contribution to the band. Through her affection and skill, she taught the members of the Beatles how to look at and pose for the camera, which, in turn, taught them to look at themselves.
Over the years, Kirchherr’s recollections reveal that she saw the human qualities of the Beatles, whose singular attributes would become almost cartoonish exaggerations in the years to come. She noticed, for example, that Paul McCartney wasn’t just cute. He was interested in her books and art, a striving that has long characterized McCartney’s aspirational drive.
Astrid also saw the unappreciated artistry and beauty of another member of the band. For her, the most compelling Beatle of all was then-bassist Stuart Sutcliffe, whom she had planned to marry, ending his tenure in the band.
A couple of years later, when Sutcliffe died suddenly of a brain hemorrhage, she took pictures of John Lennon and Harrison, seeing the depth of their grief and friendship. As she posed them for that iconic photograph, Kirchherr was teaching them how to look at grief—and, in turn, she taught that to us.
Kirchherr is beloved among many Beatles fans because her story is a model for surviving with grace and dignity in the wake of tragedy. Astrid’s fortitude has always reminded me of the mythic Psyche. Abruptly abandoned by the angelic Cupid, the lovely Psyche must set out on a journey alone.
Astrid lived a life after the death of Sutcliffe, taking more photographs of the Beatles during the early 1960s, re-marrying twice, and continuing in photography. Through it all, she stayed devoted to the memory of Stuart. Her participation in the band’s biographical narrative was vital to the preservation of Sutcliffe’s story, as well as that of the pre-fame Beatles.
Kirchherr also remained loyal to the music, as her friend Stefanie Hempel writes, “She loved rock’n’roll, she loved rock’n’rollers, she loved crazy people, she was vivid and candid, a heavy smoker to the end, she was the most loyal and helpful friend and she could be the sweetest person on earth (if she liked you…).”
Photo: Astrid Kirchherr with Ringo Starr and John Lennon on the “Hard Days Night” train (Alamy Photos)