How suitable that an exhibition of Henri Cartier-Bresson's work should be included as part of the Emirates International Photography Festival, bringing the French photographer's work to these shores for the first time. Cartier-Bresson is repeatedly referred to as the greatest photographer of the past century, operating during a time when photography evolved from a scientific discovery (think of those staid, stern images of Queen Victoria) into a modern art form.
This exhibition, Europeans 1929-1991, displays his work perfectly, though the latter date is somewhat misleading because he had all but given up his main trade by then. It was during the early 1970s, in fact, that he swapped his beloved Leica camera for pencils and paintings. In a collection of 160 black and white pictures, there is just one photograph taken in 1991, of a Swiss ski lift and a lone man standing beneath it.
Mostly, the photographs are from the 1930s until the 1970s, and the strongest sense that radiates from much of the display is that of war. True, there are images of pre-war Paris in 1932, of Parisians strolling by the Seine, or four years later picnicking on the banks of the Marne. But with the benefit of hindsight, these early photographs feel poignant, as if Cartier-Bresson was a fortune-teller, capturing shots showing how undisturbed European life was before the storm clouds gathered.
The irony is that there are few pictures from the war years themselves, because Cartier-Bresson was caught by the Nazis in 1940 and placed in a German labour camp. But in 1944 his third attempt at escape was successful and he journeyed back to Paris, where he joined the Resistance movement. Two exceptionally strong photos from the collection were taken during this period. One is from a scene during the liberation of Paris, in which a group stands behind a machine gun; another depicts the liberation of a deportation camp during which a Gestapo informer is recognised by a woman she denounced. Outrage shines on the faces of those in the crowd. It's an image that well explains how Cartier-Bresson earned a reputation for taking shots at "the decisive moment". The blurry and slightly out-of-focus nature of some of these shots, and of several taken in other European cities such as Berlin and Cologne in the post-war years, lends an atmospheric sense of griminess and desolation.
But it's not all gloom. There are several humorous images too. A shot taken in Switzerland in 1953 shows two sunbathers lying on a lilo on a lake while a pair of ducks bob at their feet, a wry take on symmetry showing Cartier-Bresson's obsession with the construction of his images. In another, taken in Serbia in 1965, a man cycles down a dusty track, his body almost entirely hidden by a large double bass strapped to his back. The pictures taken in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s are also wonderfully evocative. Women and men in evening wear walk across the lawn at the Glyndebourne opera festival; schoolboys walk past Eton College chapel in tailcoat uniforms; and onlookers in London watch the coronation of George VI in 1937.
That Cartier-Bresson was fascinated with his human subjects is clear in the pictures that he took of such grand events. As with the coronation, and another of the enthronement of Pope John XXIII, he was more interested in the people looking on than the events themselves. The Italians watch enraptured, their collective expressions far more telling than the pomp and circumstance surrounding them. Overall, though, an atmosphere of discretion pervades much of the collection, which perhaps illustrates why Cartier-Bresson could capture such revealing moments with the click of a shutter. He never used a flash, considering it "impolite". He would cover the gleaming silver parts of his cameras with black tape, often keeping them hidden tucked underneath his coat. One of the images in the exhibition is of a Romanian couple, asleep and entwined on the seat of a tram, presumably blissfully unaware that they were being photographed. Others show more mundane scenes: women washing clothes in Greece or a young girl skipping through a cobbled street in Italy.
"There is something appalling about photographing people... something barbaric about it," Cartier-Bresson once said in response to criticism about the invasive nature of his work. But this collection is arresting, not appalling, and it gives us the chance to study momentous events through extraordinarily astute eyes.