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Portfolio: A fresh focus on past masters

As a crowd looks on, a woman opens up her shoulders, ready to strike a particularly doleful-looking lady. Who are they? And why is no one stopping the violence?

The full flesh of the truth comes when we know something of the background of the most influential person present, but not pictured: the photographer.

For without the quick trigger-finger of Henri Cartier-Bresson, we would never have seen this moment: a moment captured at a camp for displaced persons following the Second World War; a moment at which the aggressor has picked out the woman as a Gestapo informer who had denounced her; a moment that became an icon of liberation and the end of Nazi terror; a moment that would have particular resonance for Cartier-Bresson, himself a prisoner of war for three years.

It is this kind of context that the National Media Museum is exploring in its new exhibition, The Lives of Great Photographers, pairing portraits of the masters with some of their most famous works, alongside illuminating snippets from their notebooks.

How much more can we appreciate Edward Steichen's portrait of the actress Gloria Swanson (bottom, second right), for example, when we understand that he shot it after becoming chief photographer of Vogue and Vanity Fair? After agreeing to take the commercial editorial role, he revolutionised the turn-of-the-century pictorialism he had used in creating the fine art of fashion photography by amalgamating its flighty soft focus with a modernist severity. The result: a crisp metaphor for the evanescent era in which Swanson will remain forever romantically veiled, as the talkies arrived to make actresses more accessible – and banished her silent-film career to history.

The Lives of Great Photographers is at the National Media Museum, Bradford (nationalmediamuseum.org.uk), from Friday to 4 September