Astrid Kirchherr Dies: Beatles Photographer Who Gave The Boys Their Mop-Top Look Was 81

Astrid Kirchherr, photographer and early friend of The Beatles whose avant garde style helped transform the young band from ’50s-era greasers to mop-top trend-setters, died Wednesday in her native Hamburg, Germany. She was 81.

The German newspaper Die Zeit reports that Kirchher died following a “short, serious illness,” with no additional details provided.

“Absolutely stunned to hear the news of Astrid passing,” tweeted Pete Best, the Beatles’ original drummer, today. “God bless you love. We shared some wonderful memories and the most amazing fun times.”

Kirchherr, along with her friend Klaus Voormann, befriended the Beatles during the group’s early, pre-Beatlemania Hamburg club residencies, and the pair’s fashion sense – they were part of the city’s “Exi” (short for “existentialist”) youth subculture – quickly entranced original bassist Stuart Sutcliffe. Soon, the biker jackets and greased, Elvis-inspired pompadours so beloved by the teenaged John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison were history, replaced with the style that would spark a worldwide fashion revolution: black Sartre-like turtleneck sweaters and  medium-length (though it seemed impossibly long to most American fathers) hair,  the sides actually approaching the ear tops and floppy bangs hitting (and later covering) the eyebrows.

Though Kirchherr would always insist that she didn’t invent the look, noting that the style was already popular among Hamburg’s art students, the Beatles were forever – and publicly – grateful. “Astrid,” Harrison once said, “was the one who influenced our image more than anyone else. It made us look good.”

Equally as important to the band’s early visibility was Kirchherr’s moody, stars-in-the-making photographs, including the now classic series of portraits – pre-mop-tops – taken in 1960 at a Hamburg fairground. She later photographed the band with their new hairstyles in a series of stark, black-and-white shots that would inspire the Beatles’ classic album cover for With The Beatles (or, in America, Meet The Beatles). Though the heavily-shadowed cover is often incorrectly attributed to Kirchherr, the actual photographer was Robert Freeman, his approach strongly indebted to Kirchherr’s portraits of the band.

Kirchherr’s impact on the band was not, however, strictly professional nor stylistic: Shortly after meeting, she and Sutcliffe fell in love and, in November 1960, got engaged to be married. Sutcliffe did not follow his bandmates back to England, staying behind in Hamburg with Kirchherr to study painting. While living with Kirchherr at her mother’s home, Stutcliffe began experiencing excruciating, blinding headaches.

It was Kirchherr who, on April 13 1962, met the band at the Hamburg Airport to tell them that Sutcliffe had died several days earlier. Lennon, in particular, was devastated.

The 1994 early Beatles biopic Backbeat prominently featured the Sutcliffe-Kirchherr relationship, with Sheryl Lee as Kirchherr and Stephen Dorff as Sutcliffe.

Kirchherr would later marry drummer Gibson Kemp, who had replaced Ringo Starr in the band Rory Storm and the Hurricanes after Starr joined the Beatles (replaced Best). In 1964, Kirchherr shot behind-the-scenes photos on the set of A Hard Day’s Night that were collected and published in the 2008 book Yesterday: The Beatles Once Upon a Time, and she photographed a Beatle one final time in 1968, for Harrison’s Wonderwall Music solo album. She would subsequently become an interior designer.

Kirchherr’s Beatles photographs were later collected in a 2018 book Astrid Kirchherr With The Beatles, published by Damiani.

In a tweet today, Beatles biographer Mark Lewisohn paid tribute: “Danke schön, Astrid Kirchherr. Intelligent, inspirational, innovative, daring, artistic, awake, aware, beautiful, smart, loving and uplifting friend to many. Her gift to the Beatles was immeasurable.”

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