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Pop Art: Astrid Kirchherr and the Beatles

The photographer met the band in 1960 in Hamburg, fell for bassist Stuart Sutcliffe, took striking photos of them and helped develop the mop-top look. Her love affair and Sutcliffe's death are all part of 'Backbeat' at the Ahmanson.

February 02, 2013|By Karen Wada
  • Pete Best, left, George Harrison, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Stuart Sutcliffe at Hugo Hasse Fun Fair in 1960.
Pete Best, left, George Harrison, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Stuart… (Astrid Kirchherr, ©Ginzburg…)

Astrid Kirchherr met the Beatles in 1960 when they were five lads from Liverpool pounding out marathon shows at a club in a seedy part of her native Hamburg, Germany.

She fell for the bass player, Stuart Sutcliffe, and found the others — John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Pete Best (the group's drummer before Ringo Starr) — fascinating. "I was just amazed how beautiful these boys looked," she told National Public Radio's Terry Gross in 2008.

Kirchherr, a photographer's assistant, began taking pictures of her new friends. Her black-and-white images established her place in Beatles lore as did her romance with Sutcliffe — to whom she was engaged before he died in 1962. (She also is credited with helping to develop the band's "look," including its signature mop-top cut.)

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The story of Kirchherr and the Beatles is told in "Backbeat," a play with music about the group's early years that is making its U.S. debut at the Ahmanson Theatre through March 1. According to producer Karl Sydow, "Astrid is definitely a central character" in the show, which is based on a 1994 film and premiered in Glasgow in 2010. She also is involved in one of the play's main dramatic conflicts, in which Sutcliffe leaves the group — and his best friend, Lennon — and stays in Germany to pursue his relationship with her (as well as his passion for painting).

Indeed, for Beatles buffs, photographs and photographer form an alluring combo: uncommon glimpses of a band's backstory created by someone who was a part of it all.

Shortly after they met, Kirchherr took her first pictures of the Beatles — their first real photo session — at a local fairground, where she posed the young rockers with old vehicles and rusty metal works. After Sutcliffe died of a cerebral hemorrhage in April 1962, she captured one of her favorite images: Lennon and Harrison visiting their friend's art studio (her mother's attic).

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By the next year, the Beatles — skills sharpened by many Hamburg gigs — were on their way to superstardom. Kirchherr went to England in 1964 to shoot them filming the movie "A Hard Day's Night." By the late '60s, she had pretty much stopped taking photographs. She has since worked on books and projects and in a variety of fields.

Now 74, Kirchherr still lives in Hamburg. In 2011, she sold her Beatles archive to a group led by New York art dealer Vladislav Ginzburg. "A huge portion of Astrid's time was dedicated to these photographs," he says. "She will always be connected to them, but I think she's ready to start a new volume of her life."

Ginzburg adds that platinum prints of several Kirchherr works can be seen at the Peter Fetterman Gallery in Santa Monica, and plans are underway to present her entire archive at the online gallery Rock Paper Photo.


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