Astrid KirchherrBack to Artists
Astridd Kirchherr took her favourite picture in April 1962, days after her fiancé, Stuart Sutcliffe, died in her arms on the way to a Hamburg hospital. You may have seen it: Sutcliffe's best friend, John Lennon, sits in sombre half-light with a boyish George Harrison behind him.
"When you see John's little face, it's so sad," Kirchherr says, a catch in her throat even now. "He looks so lost sitting there, and there's this 18-year-old boy standing behind him looking so strong. I always get the feeling George is saying, 'Don't worry John, I'll be there with you'."
Kirchherr's pictures have told and retold such stories countless times since the faces of her Liverpudlian friends wallpapered the world 40 years ago.
But the earliest shots, taken by a beautiful, 22-year-old German photography graduate in a disused fairground in Hamburg in late 1960, resonate most strongly. The innocence and ambition in their young faces seem to grow more significant every year that celebrity and mortality continue their strange dance.
"In the early days, they looked quite rough, having their hair combed back with grease, really looking like rock'n'rollers," Kirchherr says of that first shoot, two years before the Beatles' first single. "So I thought it would suit them the most between all these wagons and steel and rust.
"It was early in the morning, because I only used daylight, so the poor guys had to get up very early. They only stopped playing at four o'clock in the morning, and we met about nine or 10.
"But, you know, they were so excited to get their pictures taken that they were all standing on the corner when I drove around. They all looked neat and nice, even though they only had a few things to wear. They couldn't wait to go with me to take the pictures."
Kirchherr's accidental role in 20th-century pop culture was detailed in the 1994 movie, Backbeat. It was she who cut the hair of "fifth Beatle" Sutcliffe, and subsequently Harrison's, in the style that would soon part the world.
She also helped cement the Beatles' chemistry by effectively removing Sutcliffe, a poor musician, but a brilliant painter, from the musical equation.
As told in Backbeat, a film Kirchherr praises for its accuracy in mood and detail, he would die of a brain haemorrhage 18 months after their engagement.
If you look closely, another of her fairground pictures foretells that story with chilling prescience. It's an image of Lennon as a resolute, 20-year-old, teddy boy, staring down Kirchherr's lens as Sutcliffe blurs into the background.
"Yes, yes, I know," she whispers. "When Stuart passed away, I was so young and so selfish about living and having fun. It was only when we did the film that I (was able to) review all my feelings and the part of my life I had with Stuart. Then it really affected me. I felt the loss so much."
"I learned so much about love and affection from him. That influenced my whole life. I have never met a man who I could still say, 'That is the love of my life'. Stuart is. I never met anybody as full of love and giving as this young man."
After his death, Sutcliffe's sister reclaimed his paintings and sold them, Kirchherr reports sadly. She's since married and divorced twice.
Kirchherr shot the Beatles again, as the biggest stars in the world, on the set of A Hard Day's Night in 1964, but gave up photography a few years later, when it became apparent that all anyone cared about was her Beatles pictures.
It would be another 15 years before she saw a penny for any of them. It was only the labours of "a friend" in the early '80s that returned all of her negatives and copyrights to her in Hamburg. She guesses she threw away hundreds of thousands of dollars in the preceding 20 years.
"I'm a very, very silly girl," she says lightly. "I've gone a bit better now, but then I just had the joy of taking pictures, and I never cared about my negatives. I just gave them away whenever anybody asked for them."
"I never cared about the money so much, because it was such a joy meeting them and becoming very close friends with them. They gave me so much in return, as far as love and affection was concerned. They always cared about me and looked after me, especially George."
Kirchherr lost touch with Lennon when he moved to New York in the early '70s, but says she still catches up with "Paul and Richie". She last saw Harrison in mid-2001, months before he died, when he invited her to his English mansion for a last weekend with his family.
"I remember we had a little walk in his park, and I was so full of love and joy to be with him that I cried," she says. "He said, 'You must not cry, I will always look after you'. He had no fear. No fear whatsoever. I miss his presence, but I've got the feeling he's still around me."