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In Memoriam: Astrid Kirchherr

[16 May 2020]

We read the news today, oh boy ….

It was with great sadness that Jacaranda Records learned of the death of Astrid Kirchherr, the photographer whose iconic shots helped establish The Beatles legend, who passed away at her home in Hamburg last week.

After meeting The Beatles in a club in her hometown in 1960, where the band were performing after being brought to the city by original Jacaranda owner Allan Williams, Astrid was to play a pivotal role in developing the then five-piece outfit’s unique visual style.

Quickly falling in love with original bassist Stuart Sutcliffe, she was credited on having a huge impact on the band’s look, cutting his hair into the mop-top style that was to personify The Beatles’ image for much of their early careers and lending him the collarless jackets later adopted by the entire group as their early signature stage gear.

A frequent visitor to The Jacaranda during her 1961 visit to Liverpool to meet her now fiance Sutcliffe’s family and friends, she was living with Stuart in Hamburg when the man who helped forge The Beatles’ creative drive suffered a massive brain haemorrhage in 1962 and, in the back of a racing ambulance, was holding him in her arms when he died.

Remaining a close friend of the band throughout the sixties, Kirchherr became a freelance photographer in 1964, in an era when few women were able to earn a living from the profession, taking a raft of behind-the-scenes photographs of both The Beatles and a host of emerging Liverpool bands during the iconic Merseybeat period. On one occasion, when she offered to photograph groups outside the city’s St George’s Hall, over 200 outfits turned up for the opportunity.

Although never enjoying commercial success from her iconic early work, Astrid moved on to become a stylist, interior designer and photography shop owner in her native Hamburg, where she died after a short illness, a week before her 82nd birthday.

While frequently invited to Beatles conventions and widely regarded as one of the driving forces behind their early image, in a world where a motley cast of thousands would try to shoehorn themselves into the band’s legend, she preferred to downplay her role with typical modesty and class.

She will be sorely missed.

Jacaranda Records’ Capomaestro Ray Mia said: “We’ve got two original Astrid photos in our office upstairs at The Jacaranda, they’re so important to us because first and foremost, they’re beautiful, they capture a time of innocence of youth of desire. The most striking thing about the images is how Stuart is framed, how she made him the centre of image narratively, figuratively, in one of them John and George look like the backline – they look so young and are trying to come across as cool and interesting, which to Astrid this must have made sense because they are trying so hard – while Stuart did not need to try, Stuart is so iconic, he exudes cool and holds his guitar like its secondary to the man. Whenever I meet with folks and we give them a tour of the building and explain the basement, the history, the era – what we do when we get to our offices, it’s just as easy pointing to Astrid’s pictures – that the photo of John and Stuart sums up our philosophy, that even though Stuart is out of focus in one shot, he’s really the main figure in the frame, and that to us means everything, it’s about passion, it’s about unrealised potential, it’s about that energy of discovery. We feel so strongly that our Label has to respect its past, build on its fragile legacy – but think about the ‘What ifs’ in life. So many people were part of The Beatles history and legend, I don’t think it can be underestimated the impact Astrid had on the boys in Hamburg, and there would not have been that look which launched them. Irrespective of the iconic future they would go on to enjoy, Astrid fell in love with a boy from Liverpool, and the boy from Liverpool fell in love with Astrid, and she had an eye and a talent, and she had a maturity and ability that eclipsed them at the time. Do yourself a favour, go look at her photos, they are up there with Dorethea Lange, Diane Arbus, Berenice Abbott – she deserves a place as one of the greatest photographers of all time. Sad times we live in, but we shall always burn the flame for Astrid as her work represents more about what we want to be doing than the four lads that went on to do what they did. She had talent, she had class, she had dignity, she can be with Stuart again. RIP.”

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