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The Independent Culture
APPROACHING his 87th birthday, Henri Cartier-Bresson remains arguably the world's greatest photographer. For much of this century, his "decisive moments" have captured the essence of the human condition the world over. But Britain has always seemed under-represented in his work - until now. Between 1951 and 1959, Cartier-Bresson made a series of visits to London in the course of assignments for various travel magazines of the day. Few people in Britain ever saw the results: some were published, but usually abroad; others were never even printed. And, ever since, these London photographs have lain forgotten in the archives of the Magnum agency in Paris.

Recently rediscovered, they have acquired in the intervening decades a historical resonance that complements their original human and aesthetic interest. This is a London that has vanished: a London of stability and hierarchy, of rigid social convention, of chirpy cockneys and friendly bobbies and bowler-hatted businessmen.

Some Britons remember that era with nostalgic affection; others shudder to recall its stifling class structure. These are quintessentially British images. But it took the eye of one of the greatest of Frenchmen to preserve them for posterity.

Faces of Fifties Britain: opposite page (above), a paper-seller and a bowler-hatted gent show the cut of class and clothes in 1955; below, a boy reads a comic, 1951. Close encounter of an urban kind, this page: at a street pet market, 1955

Cartier-Bresson captured the real-life images of Dock Green and Ealing Studios. Above: a police officer telephones the station, 1955. Right: a calmer time for making money on the Stock Exchange, 1955The daily grind and the social round: above, buying London Underground tickets at Piccadilly Circus, 1951; below, soldiers gaze as socialites make their way to the Ascot train at Waterloo Station, 1953; right, the Lyceum dance hall, the Strand,1955

One city, two nations: above, the East End, 1955, still bearing the scars of the Blitz; left, the West End, 1959, with dancers enjoying Queen Charlotte's Ball. An orderly crocodile, below: schoolchildren in Kensington, 1955

Decisive moments in young Londoners' lives: a deux, left, at Queen Charlotte's Ball, 1959; and alone, below, in a deserted Portobello, 1955. Cartier-Bresson caught character and attitude without artificial preparation or composition