Astrid Kirchherr Beatles photographic archive heads to auction

Early in 1960, the Beatles (at that time called the Silver Beatles), then a club band starting to make a stir in dingy dance clubs in working class Liverpool, heard that – musically speaking – exciting things were happening in Hamburg, Germany. Packing their cases into a well beaten van and packing the van onto a steamer, they sailed across the North Sea, eventually pulling into the Continent and then on to the Reeperbahn, occasionally referred to as Hamburg’s "street of shame" for its mile-long mix of strip joints, night clubs and (legalized) houses of prostitution.

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Once landed, they (all five of them including Pete Best as the drummer and Stuart Sutcliffe – the "fifth" Beatle) were able to work their way into first the Indra Club and then the Kaiserkeller, with its larger stage where the headlining group was another Liverpudlian bunch called Rory Storm and the Hurricanes with a young Ringo Starr on drums.

While at the Kaiserkeller, the band met a beautiful young woman, Astrid Kirchherr, who, fresh out of art school where she studied photography under Reinhart Wolf, was taken by the young Englishmen. And they by her. So much so in fact, that a romance quickly blossomed between Astrid and Sutcliffe. In a sense, Astrid became part of the group, eventually being credited with helping shape them into the Fab Four they became. But in those first days, she did what she knew best… she photographed them. Wearing boyish blond hair above form-fitting black leather, she was part of an emerging post WWII hip German youth movement and the photography she produced showed it. Her work was stark and edgy half a century before edgy became "in". She shot them on back lots, she shot them in studios and she shot them on stage.

In short order, Stuart Sutcliffe, more a painter than a musician, moved into Astrid’s parents’ attic where he produced abstract canvasses. The couple made plans to marry. Following their two month stint on stage, the other Beatles took a different course. First George Harrison (because at 17 he was younger than the legal work age) and then Paul McCartney and Pete Best (both for pranks) were deported. John Lennon, with no one left to make music with, left on his own accord.

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Returning to Hamburg in the spring of ’61, the group started hitting its stride at the Top Ten Club. And Astrid kept shooting. Doors opened as the boys started meeting people and making waves. Traveling to Paris and back to the UK, in time the group triumphantly returned to Liverpool’s Cavern Club and then onto their first radio session. It was about that time that Ringo Starr was plucked from the Hurricanes to occasionally play with the Beatles and ultimately replace Pete Best, who, it was said, didn’t play drums so well and besides, his curly hair just didn’t work as a mop top.

It was back to Hamburg – and Astrid – in ’62 for great appearances at the now world famous Star Club, and then tragedy. The charismatic, great looking Stuart Sutcliffe, the fifth Beatle and love of Astrid’s life, suddenly died from a brain hemorrhage. In time, the Beatles recovered from the loss and went on to greatness. Astrid also recovered although even to this day, every once in a while one catches a certain sadness in her eyes. She remained great friends with the guys, returning to create a special photographic series during the filming of their landmark film "A Hard Day’s Night". For decades, she annually traveled to England to stay with George Harrison and his family.

Late in 2010, the University of Liverpool mounted a special exhibition of Astrid Kirchherr’s photography. A handsome and comprehensive book for the event detailed her career and contained within its two hundred pages roughly fifty of her Beatles photographs. Her work can further be seen in such books as "Yesterday. The Beatles Once Upon A time" and "The Hamburg Sound." "Backbeat," the popular 1994 film, told the story of her life with Sutcliffe and the Beatles in Germany. Virtually all of the reviews of Astrid’s work praise the then young photographer for having a keen eye and sharp sense of composition. Those who write about such things have described her work as compelling.

Over the years, a handful of Astrid’s Beatles prints have been offered for sale. These now familiar pictures depict the four men who changed our popular culture once and forever, taken at a time when they were young and raw. The vast majority of her material focusing on the Beatles, and tangentially, Stuart Sutcliffe, Pete Best, Tony Sheridan, Rory Storm, the Liverpool scene around the Cavern Club, etc. however, has been hidden… until now. This large body of work might well be described as a "remarkable untapped archive of never-before-seen imagery". More simply put, it is a vast collection of previously unknown Beatles photos. And they are great.

Fortunately, Astrid had the foresight to carefully store her film negatives. (She primarily shot in black/white in the square 2 1/4" or 6 cm format.) Today, these negatives are preserved in an archivally correct environment in Hamburg. But that is soon to change. Those precious negatives, along with properly produced digital images and corresponding photographic prints are coming to auction. Guernsey’s auction, the New York City-based auction house known for many interesting projects including those relating to John F. Kennedy, John Coltrane and Elvis Presley, is in the process of preparing for an absolutely unique event – the sale at auction of Astrid Kirchherr’s film negatives of the Beatles.

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Divided into roughly 500 auction lots (with each lot containing anywhere from a single image to several related shots), the successful buyers from this unprecedented offering will find themselves with the aforementioned original film negatives, the carefully protected, only digital copies made from those negatives, photographic prints of the images, and – perhaps most importantly – the rights extended to photographers to forever use those negatives. In short, the auction buyers will not only be able to own these specific images of the Beatles but furthermore, have the right to make prints, posters and do all the things the professional photographer who took the pictures could do. (A precise definition of "photographers’ rights" will be contained within the auction literature.)

In addition to Astrid’s extraordinary negatives, she also retained original contact sheets and prints of many descriptions.  Naturally, these also will be part of the auction, which will be taking place September 24 and 25 at 82 Mercer Street, that wonderful, cavernous space in the heart of Manhattan’s Soho.

Although, by any standard, Astrid’s Collection would be capable of standing alone as a great and unprecedented event, her archive represents only a portion of what will be a remarkable two-day Rock & Roll auction. Indeed, there will be many other treasures including the wonderful collection from Manny’s Music, "The Original Music Superstore."  Located in the heart of New York City’s music district, Manny’s opened its doors in 1935 and quickly became known as the store where great musicians purchased their instruments. In fact, Manny’s became a hangout for the legends of Rock & Roll (and to some degree, important figures from the Big Band and Jazz eras as well). Quickly, it became a tradition for these performers to give Manny inscribed photographs to be hung on the walls of the store which took on the appearance of a photo gallery. Those hundreds of photos of such performers as Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra, and Blondie – all with meaningful inscriptions – are now very much part of this sale.

The sale also features a selection of historic, performance-used instruments played by Hendrix, Lennon and Presley.

Visit the Guernsey’s auction homepage for more information about the auction.

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