Astrid Kirchherr, photographer.

Born: May 20, 1938.

Died: May 12, 2020.

ASTRID Kirchherr, who has died aged 81, was the German photographer whose iconic sepia-tinged portraits of the pre-fame Beatles captured the group just as the page of history was turning.

In October 1960 Kirchherr was a 22-year-old student in Hamburg when, against her better judgment, she allowed her artist boyfriend Klaus Voormann and a mutual friend to take her to the Kaiserkellar, one of many dingy dives dotted around the Reeperbahn, the city’s red-light district. She was immediately transfixed by the sight of the resident band playing a savage brand of rock ‘n’ roll and, in the case of John Lennon, literally tearing up the stage.

Equally beguiling were the rest of the band which then consisted of Paul McCartney, George Harrison, drummer Pete Best and bass guitarist Stuart Sutcliffe, the Edinburgh-born James Dean lookalike who was Lennon’s closest friend and, arguably, the band’s most charismatic member despite his lack of musical talent.

Dazzled by their rebellious magnetism, Kirchherr invited them to a local theme park the next day and took several black and white pictures, which showed the Beatles in a freeze-frame moment set against the industrial grime of carnival rides.

The portraits show them as youthful outlaws, black-clad, bleary-eyed and disdainful, proto-punks – the very antithesis of the family-friendly mop tops they would soon become. Seen through the spectrum of 60 years, they remain among the most compelling pictures of the Beatles ever taken.

“In the early days, they looked quite rough, having their hair combed back with grease, really looking like rock’n’rollers”, Kirchherr later said. “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 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.”

It was the first of many sessions she had photographing the Beatles on the cusp of fame, and her pictures remain an important record of those early days.

Kirchherr would also have a major influence on the band’s aesthetic, encouraging them to ditch the Presley quiffs and brush their hair forward in the style that would come to be forever associated with their early rise to worldwide prominence.

The daughter of a sales executive with the Ford Motor Company, Kirchherr was born in Hamburg on May 20, 1938, and evacuated to the Baltic coast during the war, during which her father, a non-Nazi, drove troop-supply trucks.

She enjoyed a comfortable middle-class upbringing in Hamburg and was drawn to photography at a young age. Like so many post-war German teenagers, she was part of the French-led Existentialist movement that adopted a more liberal outlook than their parents’.

It was this aspect of her personality that made her so attractive to the Beatles, and especially Sutcliffe. Within days of meeting, Kirchherr and Sutcliffe had become romantically involved, a relationship that was to consume them both.

She spoke little English and he had only a fragmentary knowledge of German, but they were utterly besotted with each other and were soon engaged. She said: “Stuart blew my mind. It was fantastic to look at him and see all that beauty.”

Elfin-like with blonde hair, Kirchherr possessed an ethereal beauty and a bohemian sophistication that only made her even more attractive to Sutcliffe, who saw himself more as an artist than a musician. Under her influence, he quit the Beatles and enrolled in a Hamburg art college.

His late sister, Pauline, recalled the moment she first set eyes on her when he brought his fiancée to Liverpool for the one and only time to meet his parents. She said: ‘She arrived at our house like a Cinderella. I was in awe. Her appearance and attitude was ahead of our times. She cast a spell.”

The affair, though, was doomed to end in tragedy. Sutcliffe began suffering blinding headaches and acute sensitivity to light, rumoured to have been the consequences of a beating at the hands of thugs after a Liverpool concert. He died in Kirchherr’s arms on April 10, 1962, in an ambulance after suffering a seizure at her home. He was just 21.

Two days later, she had to break the heartbreaking news to the rest of the Beatles when they arrived back in Hamburg. Lennon was inconsolable. By the end of the year, the Beatles had released Love Me Do, their first single.

Even as their careers took off, however, they remained friendly with Kirchherr, who continued to take pictures of them. In the months before Beatlemania kicked in, she even went on holiday to Tenerife with McCartney and Harrison, with whom she was especially close. He once said: “I was the youngest, so she was always looking out for me.” In truth, she loved them all – but only one Beatle loved her back.

In the years that followed, she found it hard to escape the shadow cast through her association with the group. She carried on working as a freelance photographer and eventually set up shop back in Hamburg, occasionally holding exhibitions of her work. In later years, she tracked down all the copyrights of her early images of the Beatles to stop them being constantly reproduced for free.

In 2010 a retrospective of her work was staged in Liverpool, and the following year she auctioned some 800 negatives and prints.

Kirchherr was married and divorced twice, unable to find a partner who could live up to the young Scot she first saw in a German bar. She had no children. In 2010, she was still referring to Sutcliffe as the love of her life.

Her death was announced last week by Beatles historian and biographer Mark Lewisohn, who said she had made an “immeasurable” contribution to the group and was “intelligent, inspirational, innovative, daring, artistic, awake, aware, beautiful, smart, loving and uplifting”.