Astrid Kirchherr: A Retrospective at the Victoria Gallery & Museum, University of Liverpool.

Victoria Gallery & Museum

Photography The university’s art gallery and museum reopened in 2008 with a retrospective of “fifth Beatle” Stuart Sutcliffe’s paintings and two years later they’re poignantly offering a show of photographs from the other side of one of the more tragic cultural romances, with a selection of Astrid Kirchherr’s photographs from throughout the 1960s, focusing on Sutcliffe and the fab four in their earlier incarnation and some of her documentary work capturing the people of Liverpool.

After spending last Friday evening failing to visit the Open Eye Gallery because of the length of the queue outside, I had the rare pleasure of seeing Kirchher's work in an almost empty gallery save for a fellow visitor dashing out into the corridor with her mobile phone. My mp3 player spontaneously began playing the soundtrack to Lost in Translation, Kevin Shields and Air the perfect accompaniment to the images.

At one point a section of dialogue from the film played which I'd originally recorded for a mix cd as a message to someone but as I looked at this collection, I couldn't help but make a connection between Charlotte's uncertainty and Astrid who was similarly uncertain about her place in the world (judging by the interviews I've read). But whereas Scarlett Johansson's character chose writing, Kirchher stopped at photography:

Charlotte: I'm stuck. Does it get easier?
Bob: No. Yes. It gets easier.
Charlotte: Oh yeah? Look at you.
Bob: Thanks. The more you know who you are, and what you want, the less you let things upset you.
Charlotte: Yeah. I just don't know what I'm supposed to be, you know. I tried being a writer, but I hate what I write. I tried taking pictures, but they were so mediocre. You know, every girl goes through a photography phase. You know, horses... taking dumb pictures of your feet.
Bob: You'll figure that out. I'm not worried about you. Keep writing.
Charlotte: But I'm so mean.
Bob: Mean's okay.

If anything, the show best demonstrates the uncertain position Kirchherr retrospectively finds herself in, whether she (like Yoko later) (sorry) her connection with The Beatles chronology is what makes her work interesting or if she deserves our scrutiny in her own right. Would Astrid have been granted this retrospective on the strength of her ability to point and click alone if one of her subject hadn’t been the most famous rock band in the world?

The Beatles manager Brian Epstein certainly thought her a good enough photographer to commission her when he unveiled the new suited look for his band and she was the only photographer allowed to cover the Hard Days Night period which he'd otherwise forbidden from being seen. Otherwise her gender made working as a freelance photographer near impossible unable to attract magazines unless she was offering a new photo of John or Paul which is why she gave up in '67, relatively early in her career.

Fans will no doubt be very familiar with most of this work and the earlier shots pre-Ringo. But judging by the accompanying information, the curators have tried to include the less recognizable discarded frames offering more a sense of Kircherr’s process. Even the subtlest of differences between near identical headshots can and do mean whether we consider a Beatle to be brooding or charismatic or have a brooding charisma.

For those of us who don’t have a biography of the Beatles hardwired into our brains and think some other good music has been made since the 1960s, it’s the more artistic pieces that force us to linger. Kirchherr was a fan of the double exposure which she employed to essentially clone Sutcliffe in one street image and to show us what he might be thinking in another, merging a scene of them kissing with a portrait of the artist deep in thought.

Arguably the most interesting material is strewn through the two or three cabinets in the middle of each of the rooms filled with unlabelled candids of Astrid and various anonymous faces in Hamburg and elsewhere. It’s these which most persuasively suggest that were it not for The Beatles’s subsequent fame, many of the photographs framed and glazed on the wall could also just have remained well composed snapshots; it’s only in the later decades that they’ve become historical documents.

But the exhibition also has self portraits of Kirchherr and shots by fellow photographers. As well as eradicating the impression I had of her from Sheryl Lee’s portrayal in Ian Softley’s film Backbeat, they add lustre to the rest of the work, contextualise it. The iconic image taken by herself of herself by herself, used as the exhibition's poster (an early entry into the mirror project?) demonstrates that she had a presence all of her own.

Until 29th January 2011.

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