Henri Cartier-Bresson might turn in his grave if he saw the new show at Somerset House in London next week, which questions the master of street photography's assumption that black-and-white photography is the superior art form. He once said that he had a "horror" of colour photography.
The exhibition will feature 10 Cartier-Bresson photographs never shown before in the UK, which he took in America. USA. NYC. Brooklyn. 2nd Avenue. A café (1947), of a man asleep on a cafe table and Chicago, Illinois, also from 1947, of an unemployed man looking at job vacancies in a shop window, will be mixed with colour street photography by 15 international contemporary photographers, including Helen Levitt and Joel Meyerowitz, who employ Cartier-Bresson's ethos of "the decisive moment" in their work. "The aim of this show is to prove that Cartier-Bresson's negativity about colour was unfounded and he was basically wrong," says the curator of the show, William Ewing.
Canadian-born Ewing, who in 2010 was decorated by France as an Officier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, has chosen photographers who are keeping the "spirit of Cartier-Bresson alive and well" – who take pictures like "a hunter, waiting for the right moment" – even if they have turned to colour.
Ernst Haas (1921-1986), from Austria, was a pioneer of colour photography. "I chose some of his less garish colour photographs, including New Orleans, USA, 1960, of two menacing men on a balcony with a young girl and yellow balloon," says Ewing.
The American photographer Levitt (who died in 2009), like Cartier-Bresson, "seemed invisible to people" when photographing them, says Ewing. Meanwhile New Yorker Andy Freeberg's art fair photographs, such as Sean Kelly, Art Basel Miami, 2010, of the art dealer sitting with his spoils, reveal "parallels with Cartier-Bresson. The subject blends into the background".
Another American, Alex Webb, turned to colour from black and white shortly after 1980, when he visited Haiti. "I realised that there was another emotional note to be reckoned with: the vibrant colour of these worlds," he said.