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Hamburg, haircuts and history

She was arguably the Beatles' first female artistic influence, but resolutely remained at the other side of the camera. Now Astrid Kirchherr is going to <i>'mak show'</i> in the place where it all, allegedly, began. Philip Key reports

Published on August 16th 2010.

Hamburg, haircuts and history

WHEN, exactly 50 years ago – in August 1960 – the Beatles arrived in Hamburg to play a series of club dates, it marked a change not just in their fortunes but in those of a beauiful young local beatnik, Astrid Kirchherr.

A number of her subjects have commented on what a typical photographic session was like with Astrid and it was very much like she was treating them as if they were made out of marble or porcelain. All very still

Even today, at 72, Ms Kirchherr’s reputation is still inexorably linked with that of the group. She is as famed for the doomed relationship she struck up with then-bassist Stuart Sutcliffe as she is for inspiring a visual style that set the Beatles apart from every other rock 'n roll band.

That's before we even mention the famous images she captured of them, in her professional capacity behind a Rolleicord camera, in those formative years. But should she be better known for her considerable body of photographic work away from the group?

Yes, according to Colin Fallows, co-curator of a new exhibition by Kirchherr, opening at Liverpool’s Victoria Gallery and Museum on August 25, and co-author of a new book on her work.

“The prime focus behind this is to show Astrid’s work as an artist, repositioning her work as a significant 20th century photographer. Pictures of the Beatles are in it, but are not the prime focus.”

Despite this, it is not pure coincidence that Astrid Kirchherr, A Retrospective opens on the same day as the International Beatles Week in Liverpool.

Fallows suggests that it really follows the course of a previous Beatles-flavoured exhibition at the gallery in 2008, a retrospective of the work of artist Sutcliffe who died in 1962, from a brain tumour, in the arms of his fiancee - Astrid Kirchherr.

That show had been timed to run in conjunction with the Liverpool Biennial. “That’s opening in September, so, like the Sutcliffe exhibition, we will be opening earlier than it and by ending at the end of January, finishing later.”

Fallows, professor of sound and visual arts at the Liverpool John Moores University and a long-time face on the Liverpool arts scene, has curated the exhibition with gallery director Matthew Clough.

Putting the show together meant a number of trips to Hamburg to work through the Kirchherr archives.

There were thousands of images to examine. “It’s a digital archive which allows the easy location of the original negatives. Both Astrid and her manager, Ulf Kruger, collaborated completely.”

Kirchherr was more than a photographer to the Beatles. She is credited with sending the young Liverpudlians back home with their first “mop top” haircuts and collarless jackets, but has insisted that the former, at least, is “rubbish”.

“Lots of German boys had that hairstyle,” she has been quoted as saying. “Stuart had it for a long while and the others copied it. I suppose the most important thing I contributed to them was friendship."

Kirchherr more or less gave up photography in 1967, reportedly tired of the overbearing media interest in her Beatles images. So how come there are “thousands” of pictures in her archive?

“Well, she worked with photography all the time she was at art school in Hamburg, 1957-1960, tutored by an influential photographer named Reinhard Wolf. When she graduated, she worked as Wolf’s assistant,” says Fallows.

“So she was working as a professional photographer from when she graduated. The archive, however, goes right back to Astrid’s childhood and the time she was a student.

“In this show there are also a number of images from Wolf’s studio with some of his own photographs. He had a silver studio in Hamburg a good five years before Andy Warhol (Warhol's famed Silver Factory was so named because it was decorated in silver).

“So we also have photographs of the interior of the studio with some of Astrid’s subjects and indeed Astrid herself.”

Portrait photography was as much a key element of her work as it was of Wolf’s. “He did a lot of different things and taught Astrid portrait photography. But it was a commercial photographic studio doing portraits, food photography, fashion, product design, and all those things.”

Hamburg had a burgeoning arts scene even before the Beatles landed, Fallows explains. “She was very much a part of that at art school with people like Klaus Voormann (the Manfred Mann member who later designed the sleeve of the Beatles album Revolver) and the model Verushka who starred in the film Blow Up.”

But it was her meeting with the Beatles and Stuart Sutcliffe in particular which quickly dominated her life.

“There are a number of reasons why she is significant today. She had a unique way of putting her photographs together in quite a sculptural way with no movement in them. They are very statuesque, a number of them almost like Greco-Roman sculptures. A number of her subjects have commented on what a typical photographic session was like with Astrid and it was very much like she was treating them as if they were made out of marble or porcelain. All very still.”

Like the Beatles, she also styled her subjects. “She would cut their hair, dress them and tell them exactly how she wanted them positioned. And she always used natural light,” Fallows says.

Some of the famous Beatles photographs are in the exhibition and book but there are many never seen before, for example pictures of the Hamburg scene in general, holiday pictures in Tenerife including a rare colour picture of Sutcliffe, and preliminary and uncropped photographs so visitors can discover how her mind worked and see the work in a broader context.

Since giving up photography, Kirchherr has worked in a number of jobs from barmaid to interior designer. She married twice – first to Liverpool musician Gibson Kemp and then to a German businessman, but following her second divorce now lives alone, quite happily, she says.

Today she runs the K&K photography shop in Hamburg with her business partner and manager Ulf Kruger, selling prints, artwork and books and dealing with worldwide interest in her Beatles photographs.

She has visited Liverpool a number of times and plans to attend the opening of the exhibition – and while she no longer takes photographs in a conventional way “she told me that she is still taking photographs – in her imagination,” says Fallows.*Astrid Kirchherr – A Retrospective runs at the VG&M, Brownlow Hill, Liverpool, from August 25-January 29, 10am-5pm, closed Mondays and Sundays and Bank Holidays. Admission free.

* The book Astrid Kirchherr, A Retrospective, with interviews by Colin Fallows and essays by Michael Bracewell, Matthew Clough and Jon Savage, is published on August 24 by Liverpool University Press at £16.95.

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