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Group Shot: John French

April 8, 2010


John French (1 March 1907-21 July 1966) was one of the top English fashion and portrait photographers of the 1950s and 1960s.

Born in Edmonton, London, French originally trained and worked as a commercial artist, becoming a photographic director in an advertising studio just before World War II, during which he served as an officer in the Grenadier Guards.

French persuaded the art editors of the national press and his work appeared in virtually every newspaper and magazines. In 1948 he set up his own photographic studio. Working originally with the Daily Express he pioneered a new form of fashion photography suited to reproduction in newsprint, involving where possible reflected natural light and low contrast.

Photograph, John French, 1960s. John French Archive (V&A)

Photograph, John French, 1960s. John French Archive (V&A)

Photograph, John French, 1960s. John French Archive (V&A)

He also undertook portrait photography (See more of his work at V&A Images.). French himself devoted much attention to the set and posing of his models, but left the actual triggering of the shutter to assistants, amongst whom were Terence Donovanand David Bailey.

(Above: Jean Dawnay with John French and assistant, London 1958.)

David Bailey about his friend, John French:

“…When he demobbed in August 1958, Bailey acquired a Canon Rangefinder camera and the ambition to make a living with it. He applied to the London College of Printing but was rejected because he’d dropped out of school. Instead, he wound up working as a second assistant to photographer David Olins at his studio in Charlotte Mews in the West End. He was a glorified gofer–not even glorified, actually, at three pounds, ten shillings a week–and was therefore delighted a few months later to be called to an interview at the studio of John French, a somewhat better-known name and a man who had a reputation for nurturing his assistants’ careers.

French, then in his early fifties, was the epitome of the fashion photographer and portraitist of the era: exquisitely attired, fastidious, posh and gay (although, as it happened, married). “John French looked,” Bailey remembered, “like Fred Astaire. ‘David,’ he said, ‘do you know about incandescent light and strobe? Do you know how to load a ten-by-eight film pack?’ I said yes to everything he asked and he gave me the job, but, at that time, I didn’t even know what a strobe was. We became friends and after six o’clock Mr. French became John. One night I asked him why he gave me the job. ‘Well, you know, David,’ he said, ‘I liked the way you dressed.’ Six months later everyone thought we were having an affair, but in fact, although we were fond of each other, we never got it on.”
In fact, French–“a screaming queen who fancied East End boys,” according to documentarian Dick Fontaine–was the first person to really recognize something special in Bailey. Partly it was his bohemian style–Cuban-heeled boots, jeans, leather jacket and hair over the ears, all before the Beatles had been heard of; party in was his aptitude for the craft. French liked to compare his young protege to the unnamed hero of Colin MacInnes’s cult novel about bohemian London, Absolute Beginners–a savvy insight–and he was perfectly willing, as he had with many previous disciples, to see Bailey get ahead in his own work.

“He was an incredibly decent type of man,” Bailey would say of his mentor after French died in 1966. “I don’t think he was very good as a photographer, but he had a good attitude. His photography sort of slowed me down a bit, because I had to break away from his way of doing things, but I benefited from his attitude.”
Even more, he would say years later, “I owe my success to two gay men, really, who told me I was wonderful and pushed me. Being a Cockney and working class, I was an outsider, and in those days gays were outcasts, too. So we felt an affinity. Anyway, John French introduced me to the picture editor of the Daily Express, and John Parsons, the art director of British Vogue–the second gay man–saw my pictures in the newspaper and offered me a job at the magazine.”


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