Monday's Book: Europeans by Henri Cartier-Bresson Thames & Hudson, pounds 29.95 (or pounds 19.95 from the Hayward Gallery)

This is one of the rare instances where the catalogue is as good as or better than the exhibition it covers. Unlike the sprawling show that currently occupies the Hayward's attic, these 180 duotone images enable the viewer to draw together recurring themes across six decades in the view-finder of Cartier-Bresson's Leica. For example, the comic mirroring in what is perhaps his best-known photograph - a man straddling a Parisian puddle in 1932 is reflected both in the water below and in a leaping figure on a poster in the background - is repeated in a 1953 shot of Athenian matrons trudging beneath a balcony ornamented with voluptuous goddesses.

Roman Catholicism emerges as a preoccupation, largely because of the unfathomable weirdness of its ceremonies: 22 priests prostrate themselves in a semicircle around a Polish archbishop for ordination; a ghostly army of veiled girls line a street in Tralee; a bevy of nuns hide round a street corner in Kerry as if lying in wait for an ecclesiastical mugging; a black- cloaked Nosferatu genuflects before an Italian altar. Yet Cartier-Bresson also reveals the humanity trapped below the priestly black. A horde of seminarists grin cheerfully while striding down a country road near Burgos; their counterparts in Kildare coyly retreat behind a roadside crucifix while changing for a football match.

The uncontrived surrealism of everyday life lies at the heart of Cartier- Bresson's serendipitous genius. In his introduction to this book, Jean Clair quotes Andre Breton on the necessity "to fish around in the rubbish of chance and the unconscious".The results are splendidly odd. A pair of feet protrudes beneath an ominously flapping black sail. A factory chimney emerges from an 18th-century carriage. An elderly man sitting on a Zurich tram holds a wooden grave-cross. A double-bass wobbles on the back of a bicycle.

The photographer's eye is repeatedly drawn to picnics, washerwomen, staircases, children and shop windows. There is a wonderful shot of a Rome barber fingering his bald dome while a wigged mannequin stares coldly at him from an adjoining window. But the subjects are always treated with the utmost respect. This even extends to the Oliver Hardy lookalikes for whom the lensman has a great fondness. Olly crops up steering a horse-powered roller in Calvados in 1960, driving a taxi in Berlin in 1931 and, somewhat the worse for wear, at a carnival in Dusseldorf in 1956.

Christopher Hirst

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