Beatles' Photographer Astrid Kirchherr Opens Up Hamburg-born Astrid Kirchherr met the Beatles in 1960, before they were famous. She took some of the earliest photographs of the group and was engaged to Stuart Sutcliffe, the Beatles' original bassist, before he died of a brain hemorrhage in 1962.
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Beatles' Photographer Astrid Kirchherr Opens Up

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Beatles' Photographer Astrid Kirchherr Opens Up

Beatles' Photographer Astrid Kirchherr Opens Up

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of sitting in for Terry Gross.

This week, the music of The Beatles becames available for the first time on iTunes, and there's another new release as well: a book of photographs that includes many rare shots of The Beatles in their early days. It's by Astrid Kirchherr the German photographer who, in 1960, was the girlfriend of Stu Sutcliffe. He was the bass player for a group that was playing clubs in Hamburg, Germany, a group called The Beatles. Here they are in a 1961 recording with John Lennon singing lead on "Ain't She Sweet?".

(Soundbite of song "Ain't She Sweet")

Mr. JOHN LENNON (Lead Singer, The Beatles): (Singing) Oh, ain't she sweet? I see you walking down that street. Yes I ask you very confidentially ain't she sweet? Oh, ain't she nice? Well look her over once or twice. And I ask you very confidentially ain't she nice? Just cast your eye in her direction, oh me oh my. Is that perfection? Oh, I repeat, well don't you think that's kind of neat? Yes, I ask you very confidentially, ain't she sweet?

BIANCULLI: Astrid Kirchherr took many pictures of the young musicians then and continued to photograph them after Stu Sutcliffe left the group. In 1961, he died suddenly of brain hemorrhage. Astrid Kirchherr was on the set of "A Hard Day's Night" in 1964 but stopped taking pictures of The Beatles and other subjects in 1967.

After that she assisted other photographers instead. A current exhibition of her work is on view in Liverpool at the Victoria Gallery and Museum and an exhibition catalogue, "Astrid Kirchherr, A Retrospective" has just come out in paperback. Terry Gross spoke with Astrid Kirchherr in 2008.


Astrid Kirchherr, welcome to FRESH AIR. What led you to go hear The Beatles in the first place when they were performing in Hamburg where you lived?

Ms. ASTRID KIRCHHERR (Photographer): Well, the first time I met The Beatles was through my former boyfriend, Klaus Voormann, who saw them one night when he was wandering around Hamburg and then he heard this beautiful sound of rock 'n' roll music. And he went down into a quite dark, filthy cellar where these boys were standing on a very, very tiny stage and performed in such way that he was absolutely, let's call it, knocked out by the music and by their looks and everything around it.

So he told me about it and it took him a couple of days to convince me to go with him to see the boys because the Reeperbahn is not a place where young ladies in the '50s or '60s were to have seen or go there. You know, it was not a nice place to go. But one night I just said all right, I come with you and so we went there and when I went down the stairs and looked at the stage, I was just amazed how beautiful these boys looked, and being a photographer then it was a photographer's dream. After that first night, I went nearly every night to see them and that's how it started.

GROSS: Now you describe when you first met The Beatles that their hair was greased back?


GROSS: How did you change their hair and why did you change it?

Ms. KIRCHHERR: Well, my boyfriend, Klaus, had a big problem because his ears used to stick out and then I had the idea to just grow the hair over them, which he then did and it looked absolutely beautiful. So when the boys saw Klaus, Stuart was the first one who said, oh I would like to have that hairstyle and because their hair was very long I could do it in one night so -which I did. And Stuart was the first one who performed onstage with the so-called Beatles or Klaus haircut.

GROSS: Yeah, I never heard it before referred to as the Klaus haircut.


(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: So how did the other Beatles decide to pick up on the same style?

Ms. KIRCHHERR: When they finished playing in Hamburg, they went back to Liverpool, and I visited Stuart there. And then George came up to me and said, could you please cut my hair like Stuart's? But the other two didn't want to know about it, John and Paul. And Pete couldn't have the hairstyle anyway because he had curly hair. But a little bit later John and Paul went to visit an old friend of ours, another German photographer called Jurgen Vollmer, and he persuaded them to have their hairstyle changed. And so they came back from Paris looking like the rest of The Beatles.

GROSS: What other changes did you make or suggest to The Beatles about their look or their clothes, whatever?

Ms. KIRCHHERR: Well, the fact is that Stuart was the same height as I am and he could wear my clothes. So immediately when he moved in with me and my mother, he got hold of all my clothes like leather pants, leather jacket, collarless jackets and white shirts with big, big collars like in the old days and waistcoats and big scarves and things like that.

But when he first appeared to play with them in Hamburg again, he used to wear my - a suit of mine made out of corduroy in black and it had no collar, it was collarless. And John just couldn't stop laughing and said, oh have you got your mum's jacket on? So that was the start of the collarless jacket, which later on, it was copied all over the place. But in fact I copied it from Pierre Cardin, a Paris designer who I saw in a magazine or something, and I thought that was a fantastic idea.

GROSS: Well, if John was making fun of Stu's jacket that didn't have lapels, how come he ended up wearing one himself, like what changed the attitude from mockery to I want one, too?

Ms. KIRCHHERR: Well John was always a little bit sarcastic, so at first, even with the hairstyle, he couldn't stop laughing, but in the end he just joined in. That was John. That was typical.

GROSS: It's interesting that Stu Sutcliffe would wear your clothes because most men wouldn't dream, back then particularly, of wearing their girlfriend's clothes. It would be more okay for a girlfriend to wear her boyfriend's clothes but not vice versa.

Ms. KIRCHHERR: Well, you know, Stuart was a very special person and he was miles ahead of everybody. You know as far as intelligent and artistic feelings are concerned he was miles ahead. So I learned a lot from him and because in the '60s we had a very strange attitude towards being young, towards sex, towards everything because it was even - it was still so short after the war and we had this big burden to carry as far as our parents and as far as our country after the war.

GROSS: Well tell us a little bit about what it was like to be a teenager growing up in post-World War Germany?

Ms. KIRCHHERR: Well it was very hard because it is hard to imagine now that there weren't any magazines. You couldn't buy any English authors or anything that came from America like jeans or what ever you - it was impossible. So we had to do our own clothes if we had weird ideas like wearing long scarves like the French people did. You had to knit them yourself. Or long sweaters, we used to nick from your father because they were miles too big, because you wanted to look like, like the Sartre people in France or in Paris like Juliette Greco or other people. And I was very, very much influenced by the films of Jean Cocteau and of - by Sartre and everything that came out of France, because it was closer than America or England. And anyway, England was then told by the older generation of Germans, were still our enemies.

GROSS: Did that come between you and the Beatles at all? The sense that your country had recently, your countries had recently been enemies? Did that interfere, at all, in the relationship?

Ms. KIRCHHERR: No, not in our relationship, but John used to make funny remarks of it from stage, because most of the youngsters couldn't speak English because we didn't have English in school, you know, in the beginning when after the war we went to school. So he used to shout from the stage, we won the war and you Krauts and all that, you know, which most of the people didn't understand. But the English people, they just were furious with laughter.

GROSS: So that's why he said it because he knew the German people wouldn't understand?

Ms. KIRCHHERR: Yeah, sure, yeah.

BIANCULLI: Astrid Kirchherr speaking to Terry Gross in 2008. More after a break, this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of song, "I'll Cry Instead")

Mr. LENNON: (Singing) I've got ev'ry reason on earth to be mad, 'cause I've just lost the only girl I had. And if I could get my way, I'd get myself locked up today, but I can't, so I'll cry instead. I've got a chip on my shoulder much bigger than my feet...

.BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 2008 interview with Astrid Kirchherr. She met the Beatles and began photographing them in Hamburg in 1960. She was still photographing them in 1964 when the Beatles were on the set of their first movie, "A Hard Day's Night".

(Soundbite of song, "A Hard Day's Night")

Mr. LENNON: (Singing) It's been a hard day's night and I've working like a dog. It's been a hard day's night. I should be sleeping like a log. But when I get home to you I find the things that you do will make me feel alright. You know I work all day to get you money to buy you things and it's worth it just to hear you say you're going to give me everything, so why on earth should I moan cause' when I get you alone you know I feel okay. When I'm home everything seems to be right. When I'm home feeling you holding me tight, tight. Yeah, it's been a hard day's night and I've been working like a dog. It's been a hard day's night.

BIANCULLI: Terry asked Astrid Kirchherr about her early connections to the Beatles.

GROSS: You became engaged to Stu Sutcliffe, who, at the time when you met him in 1960, was the bass player in the band. You seemed so taken by all of the Beatles. What special happened between you and Stu Sutcliffe? What was the bond that you had?

Ms. KIRCHHERR: Well, it's very strange and maybe it sounds sort of sentimental, but when I saw him for the first time I knew that was my man, you know. He was, and still is, the love of my life. Even though he's gone for such a long time, but I never, ever - and I was married a couple of times - met another man who was so fascinating, so beautiful and so soft and well-mannered. You name it and that he was, and such a gifted artist.

GROSS: It seems to me you both lived in a very visual world. I mean he was an artist who learned to play bass so he could be in the Beatles, and you, of course, you know a photographer, a very visual person - so even though you didn't speak each other's languages at first - he's English you're German - you seem like you must have had this visual connection.

Ms. KIRCHHERR: Yes, there was a sort of bond between us, because maybe I correct you there. Stuart just played in the band because John persuaded him to be in the band. And the first painting Stuart sold, John persuaded him again to buy a bass for that, to be in his group. So actually all Stuart wanted was to become a good painter.

GROSS: Why did John want him in the band? Why did John want him in the band so much, knowing that he didn't know how to play?

Ms. KIRCHHERR: Well because John always said, when Paul was moaning about you know how Stuart didn't practice and all that, but John always said it doesn't matter, he looks good. He is rock and roll.

GROSS: So you were engaged, what kind of a life had you envisioned for yourselves together?

Ms. KIRCHHERR: Well when you're young you're just in love and every day is so new and so fresh and so beautiful. You just don't think of the future. But Stuart was there very much, very mature, and he thought he could become a teacher in art school in London. And so that was what he was planning and then that we maybe go back to England or he gets - maybe he could teach in Germany.

GROSS: He died, Stu Sutcliffe died of a brain hemorrhage after a series of excruciating headaches.


GROSS: When he was getting those headaches, did you think and did he think, that they were a symptom of something very serious?

Ms. KIRCHHERR: No, not at all. Because, I mean, when you're so young, you don't - or death doesn't occur to you at all. It is not, it's so far away. I mean, a 21-year-old boy, you never think that there's something very drasticly happening to him.

GROSS: You know you said that death doesn't occur to you when you're young, but you had to deal with it. You must have been quite, quite shocked?

Ms. KIRCHHERR: Of course I was, but you know, all my friends helped me an awful lot. And first of all, John did, you know, and George, the two of them.

GROSS: How did they help you?

Ms. KIRCHHERR: Well John, you know, John had a very funny way of telling the people he loved what was going on. And one day he just said you have got to decide if you want to live or die. There is no other question. And you think about that and then we talk about it again. And George was just sweet, you know? The - not like John in a harsh way, but the things that helped me was John.

GROSS: So you made the decision to go on?


GROSS: And continued with your work as a photographer?

Ms. KIRCHHERR: Yes, yes.

GROSS: What were you photographing when the Beatles went back to England and they were no longer your muse?

Ms. KIRCHHERR: Well, you know, I was an assistant to a very famous German photographer, and he had a big studio where we did advertising pictures and portraits of famous musicians and things like that, you know, a real normal photo studio. So I worked there, and next to it, my boss let - I could take pictures and develop them in his darkroom, which was absolutely great. So I just wandered around and took pictures of my friends and things like that. But the work was very, very hard and so I didn't have the time to take a lot of pictures.

GROSS: The photos in your new book, "Yesterday the Beatles Once Upon a Time" are from 1964 when they were shooting "A Hard Day's Night." How did you end up with them when they were shooting that?

Ms. KIRCHHERR: Well the magazine, Stern, in Hamburg, maybe you know the magazine. The chief photographer there was a friend of a friend of mine. And so he knew that I was very close to the Beatles and he asked me if I could sort of act as a door opener for him to take pictures of the Beatles. And because at that time when they did "A Hard Day's Night" Brian Epstein stopped all the press activities and no photos were allowed to be shot then.

So I'd phone George, and you know, George was always my sort of guardian angel, and told him about it. And he said, okay you can come over if they pay you for it, otherwise you can stay at home. So I went to Stern and told them and they gave me quite, for the 60s, quite a good amount of money. And then we went over and George sent a chauffeur and they picked us up from the airport. And I stayed with George and Ringo then at the time they were making the film. So -and then when we went to the movie and did all the shots of them acting and relaxing and having fun, after that we went to Liverpool to meet Ringo's father and mommy and Georgie's mum and dad.

GROSS: Are you still taking photographs?


GROSS: Why not?

Ms. KIRCHHERR: No, because, you know, when all this Beatles thing was going on nobody was interested in my other work, no one at all. They just said, yeah, great, but where are the Beatles pictures? And so I wasn't sure if I'm really good or is it just the Beatles that made me, sort of in a way, famous? And I wasn't sure anymore if I'm good or not so I just gave it up. That's it.

GROSS: What did you do instead?

Ms. KIRCHHERR: Well I was always an assistant to a photographer, for another 20 or 30 years, and then I started interior design. And I just did things which I liked to do you know which - which had at least fun.

GROSS: For my next question I'm kind of curious how do you dress now? What's your look now?

Ms. KIRCHHERR: Still in black and I've got very short hair, still like to wear leather pants, even though I'm going to be 70 next year. And well, I try my best to look okay, you know.

GROSS: Still into long scarves?

Ms. KIRCHHERR: Yeah, a little bit, but that is because they're fashionable again. I wouldn't wear them if they don't - if they weren't fashionable.

GROSS: I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

Ms. KIRCHHERR: Oh, it was lovely talking to you, thank you very much.

BIANCULLI: Astrid Kirchherr speaking to Terry Gross in 2008. Her collection of photographs, "Astrid Kirchherr, A Retrospective" is now out in paperback. The exhibition on which it is based at the Victoria Gallery and Museum in Liverpool continues through January. I'm David Bianculli and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of song, "Things We Said Today")

Mr. MCCARTNEY: (Singing) You say you will love me if I have to go. You'll be thinking of me somehow I will know. Someday...

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