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By Matt Schudel

The Washington Post

Astrid Kirchherr, who photographed the Beatles as they launched their career in the German port city of Hamburg and became a key figure in the band's early history, influencing their fashion sense and hairstyle, died May 12 at her home in Hamburg. She was 81.

The cause was cancer, said her assistant, Kai-Uwe Franz.

When the Beatles first came to her hometown of Hamburg to perform in 1960, Kirchherr was working as a photographer's assistant. She was part of an artistic crowd, influenced by French existentialists, who wore black and brushed their short hair over their foreheads.

Her boyfriend at the time asked her to accompany him to one of the band's performances at a cramped basement club called the Kaiserkeller in the city's tough Reeperbahn district.

"My whole life changed in a couple of minutes," Kirchherr later said.

At the time, there were five Beatles: John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison played guitar and sang; Pete Best was the drummer; and Stuart Sutcliffe played bass.

"It was dark, it was dirty, I was scared and the music was very loud," Kirchherr told Britain's Independent newspaper in 1994. "Then suddenly I spotted the stage and everything just went wham! It was unbelievable. They were just wild. Paul jumping up and down, George shaking, John screaming his heart out."

Then she noticed the bass player.

"There was this man with his back to the audience. And then he turned around. He had a cigarette in his mouth and was wearing dark glasses. And I just thought 'God - this is not true!' No movement, nothing. Just this statue. That really knocked me out."

It was Sutcliffe, a onetime art student, who became the bass player because Lennon wanted him — and, more to the point, his ultracool style — in the band. Together, Lennon and Sutcliffe came up with the name Beatles for the band.

"From the first moment, I found Stuart the most attractive," Kirchherr told the Los Angeles Times in 1994. "He had a mystique. He always wore dark glasses onstage. He knew he was a terrific performer just by looking cool and smoking a cigarette. You couldn't overlook him."

Kirchherr broke up with her German boyfriend and took up with Sutcliffe. Drawn by the band members' striking appearance, which she called "a photographer's dream," Kirchherr asked if she could take pictures of them.

She packed all five members of the band and their instruments into her Volkswagen and drove them to a nearby fairgrounds for their first photo shoot, against a backdrop of trucks and railroad cars. At the time, the Beatles wore black leather jackets and slicked-back hair, mimicking American rockabilly musicians.

"My English wasn't very good then," Kirchherr told NPR's "Fresh Air" in 2008. "So I just went over and grabbed their heads and put them in the direction I wanted them to look. And I told them to sit up there and hold the instrument, and so it was a real sort of — it was a composition, you know."

The resulting black-and-white prints didn't look like the typical grainy pictures seen in fan magazines of the time: They were more like photos for a high-concept fashion magazine.

Soon afterward, Kirchherr began to affect the Beatles' general sense of style in other ways. First of all, Sutcliffe asked her to cut his hair in the manner of the "exis" — the Hamburg existentialist crowd.

"All my friends in art school used to run around with this sort of what you call Beatles haircut," Kirchherr told BBC Radio Merseyside in 1995. "And my boyfriend then, Klaus Voormann, had this hairstyle, and Stuart liked it very very much. He was the first one who really got the nerve to get the Brylcreem out of his hair and [ask] me to cut his hair for him."

She later gave Harrison the same haircut - soft and brushed forward over the forehead — and the other Beatles followed suit, giving them the group's signature "moptop" hairstyle.

Kirchherr and Sutcliffe began living together and borrowed each other's clothing. She wore his leather jackets and jeans, and he wore her leather pants, oversized shirts, long scarves and a black corduroy suit with no lapels.

"I was a weirdo, I admit," Kirchherr told the Independent. "From an early age, I'd wanted to look different. I was always looking around for unusual things — like the flamenco dancers' boots I got from a mail-order catalogue for Stuart. The others ended up wearing them too. But it was always a two-way thing - if I influenced the Beatles, then they influenced me too."

In 1961, she and Sutcliffe went back to Liverpool, England, to meet his parents and announce their engagement. Later that year, he left the Beatles and joined Kirchherr in Hamburg, where he studied art.

McCartney switched from guitar to bass. In 1962, Ringo Starr replaced Best as the Beatles' drummer.

The one person who didn't witness the meteoric success of the Beatles was Sutcliffe, who had given them so much of their early panach was born May 20, 1938, in Hamburg. Her father was an automotive executive, her mother a homemaker.

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