(Leonard) John French (1 March 1907–21 July 1966) was an English fashion and portrait photographer.
He was born in Edmonton, London in 1907.
In 1926 he enrolled in Hornsea School of Art, which taught him the basics of photography. The year after that, in 1927, he had an apprenticeship at a block making firm, and then a commercial art studio, both of which taught him about technical reproduction in print.
In 1930, he moved abroad to pursue his dream of becoming an artist. In the tiny fishing village of Positano, Italy, he studied painting with a former pupil of Georges Braque. He lived there until 1936, supporting himself by designing book covers for Jonathan Cape and other publishers.
In 1936, he moved back to London and began contributing drawings to the Daily Express. He also joined Carlton Artists photographic studios as Art Director, designing the lighting and sets, and soon directing the photography too.
From 1941-46 he was drafted into the army in the Grenadier Guards. He was mentioned in despatches for his bravery. While on leave in 1942 he married the fashion journalist Vere Denning (1910–91).
When the war was over, he rejoined Carlton Artists.
In 1948 he set up his own photographic studio, John French Limited, at the top of the Carlton Artists’s building.
French pioneered a new form of fashion photography suited to reproduction in newsprint, involving where possible reflected natural light and low contrast.
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 Donovan and David Bailey.
In the 1950s and 1960s, John French became one of London’s top fashion photographers, working with the most famous models of the time, such as Anne Gunning, Fiona Campbell-Walter, Barbara Goalen, Jean Shrimpton.
Described as "the man who brought a new glamour to fashion photography", his work appeared in almost all newspapers and magazines, including Daily Express, Daily Mail, the Daily Mirror and the Sunday Times, Harper’s Bazaar, Vanity Fair, Woman, Woman’s Own, Picture Post, and Tatler.
It is said that the dresses he featured in his photographs in the morning paper usually sold out by lunchtime, but customers were generally disappointed that they did not look quite as amazing in real life as they had in the photo.
John French was known as a quiet and gentle man, who never commanded his models or used loud pop music on set to get a mood. Instead he directed with a small touch to a model’s shoulder or a soft flattering word or two. However, he didn’t like it when an art director or fashion editor tried to interfere with his work. He was also a perfectionist, and he didn’t tolerate any kind of sloppiness.
French also undertook portrait photography, with many debutantes being his clients.
In 1956 John French Limited expanded. They kept on their first studio and also took on another top floor studio which had a glass roof especially designed for daylight photography.
From 1957-59 John French produced an exciting new TV series called “Flair”. There were eighteen fifteen-minute fashion programmes which were made and broadcast over two years.
In 1960 he also featured in a short documentary when he was filmed for the “Look at Life Series”, photographing Marla Scarafia in an episode called “Glamour Girls.”
Since about 1960, French decided to spend more time on his first love, painting. He started to go to Italy and Greece for six weeks at a time, twice a year.
At the end of 1962, his company moved into a huge new premises, with three studios shared between the four company photographers and large darkrooms, dressing rooms, a negative storage space, a workshop and retouching studios.
He worked there until he began to get ill from lymphoma.
John French died of cancer in the Royal Marsden Hospital on 21 July 1966.
The photography of French focus on freedom of expression and on the naturalness of the shots. His images are characterized by a compositional research tending to perfection, with an obvious care and attention to detail and the poses of the models within the structure.
After his death, his wife Vere Denning (1910–91) gave his photographic archive and his own collection to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
In 1984, V&A celebrated his work in an exhibition.