Astrid Kirchherr 1938-2020

by Chris Murray on May 20, 2020
John, George, and Stuart at HH Fair in Hamburg. Photo by Astrid Kirchherr.

Everyone at Govinda Gallery loved Astrid Kirchherr and her photographs. We presented her work in exhibitions in over thirty cities across America. Our association with her, and her Hamburg circle, has been a rare and wonderful pastime, with an enduring legacy. John Kelly’s story in The Washington Post this past Wednesday is a fine look at it all, with added images from Govinda Gallery.

There’s a Washington connection to late Beatles photographer Astrid Kirchherr

May 19, 2020

Story by John Kelly

Astrid Kirchherr never visited Washington, but a Washingtonian was destined to play a big part in the life of the German photographer, who died on May 12 at age 81. Kirchherr’s pictures of the early Beatles captured a band forging itself in the crucible of Hamburg.

“Astrid’s photos really are the best early photos,” said Chris Murray, who runs the Govinda Gallery from his home in the Palisades.

The gallery is online now, but it once had a bricks-and-mortar shop in Georgetown, and in 1994, Murray began hosting shows of art and photography by figures connected to the Fab Four’s early days in Hamburg.

Hamburg. Mixed media on paper by Stuart Sutcliffe.

In 1960, the Beatles were the Not-Quite-So-Fab Five. Liverpool artist Stuart Sutcliffe played bass. He had already decided to quit the band and paint full time when he met Kirchherr.

Astrid Kirchherr and Stuart Sutcliffe. Photo by Astrid Kirchherr.

Stu and Astrid fell in love. He asked that she cut his hair like hers: a mop-like shag with bangs. And she took the Beatles to a Hamburg fair ground and posed them for photos that showed their gritty side: a band on the brink.

How did Murray wind up knowing Kirchherr, whom he visited every other year in Hamburg?

“The missing link, the person really central to all of this, is Brian Roylance,” said Murray.

Brian Roylance at Friar Park. Photo by Chris Murray.

Roylance was the founder of Genesis, a British publisher known for sumptuously illustrated and handsomely bound limited-edition books. In the early 1980s, Murray saw a brief item in Rolling Stone magazine about “I, Me, Mine,” a book by George Harrison that Genesis had published.

“I love George Harrison, so I bought two copies,” said Murray, a music fan and Georgetown University graduate. (He was involved in a notorious incident in 1968 when a man in a chicken suit stormed the stage of the Washington Hilton during a Jimi Hendrix concert.)

I, Me, Mine cover and slip-case. Genesis Publications Ltd.

Impressed that someone would buy two copies of a pricey import, Roylance visited Murray’s gallery when he was in Washington and convinced him to distribute Genesis books. That would grow to include “Liverpool Days,” a book of photos Kirchherr took with Max Scheler on the set of “A Hard Day’s Night.”

“That’s how Astrid knew me. I was the distributor for her books in America,” Murray said. “It was bigger than Astrid, if you will. It was the whole Hamburg scene.”

Liverpool Days cover and slip-case. Genesis Publications Ltd.
The Beatles on the set of A Hard Day’s Night. Photo by Max Scheler.

Murray also came to represent Klaus Voormann, who created the cover of “Revolver” (and played bass with Manfred Mann and others); Juergen Vollmer, who shot the photo on the cover of John Lennon’s “Rock ’n’ Roll” album; and the late Sutcliffe, who died in 1962 of a brain hemorrhage.

Elvis McCartney. Pen on paper by Klaus Voorman.
John Lennon, Doorway. Photo by Jurgen Vollmer.

For a while, Sutcliffe’s entire artistic estate — his drawings and paintings — were in a storage facility in Landover.

The 1994 movie “Backbeat” — featuring Sheryl Lee as Astrid and Stephen Dorff as Stu — told a lot of this story, rekindling interest in how the Beatles became the band we know. In Hamburg, the Beatles performed epic sets at venues like the Star Club and the Kaiserkeller for a motley audience. The band loved American rock and roll, but they were equally intrigued by the black-clad Kirchherr and her artistic, existentialist friends.

“Both the Beatles and the Hamburg culture were rebelling against the traditional mores and they happened to meet over rock and roll,” Murray said. “Each helped the other. Perhaps the Germans seemed more sophisticated. The Beatles offered a lot, too: the music. They were fresh for each other. It was a mutual admiration they had.

“It was a moment that couldn’t be choreographed. There was a lot of serendipity there.”

Kirchherr was present at the creation.

“Astrid personally was so sort of moved by the whole episode, she stopped taking photographs after that,” Murray said. “When she was young, and with Stuart, she had worked in a photo studio and did other terrific photography, mostly of musicians. But after that whole experience, she didn’t really continue as a photographer. It’s one indication of how powerful that moment was.”

Astrid Kirchherr and Chris Murray in Hamburg, 2017. Photo by Carlotta Hester.

A very special thank you to Kai-Uwe and Julia Franz, Gibson Kemp, Ulf Kruger, and Pauline Sutcliffe.

Category: Blog, The Back Room   
  • Comments

    • Christine Nassikas

      Oh what a loss!! I loved her work.

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