Tete a Tete: Portraits by Henri Cartier-Bresson (Thames & Hudson, pounds 32)

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Like a veteran pugilist delivering the old one-two, the renowned lensman follows up his superb panorama Europeans with a knock-out collection of portraits, mostly high-calibre celebs but with a sprinkling of eye- catching mortals. A perfect corrective to incipient feelings of misanthropy, this beautifully-produced celebration of humanity is not a book for flipping through. In shot after shot, the viewer's hand is stayed from turning the page by the mesmeric power of a legendary physiognomy.

In his angry dotage, Ezra Pound's forehead is corrugated and cracked as a parched river-bed. Sartre sucks pensively on his pipe, while his errant strabismus goggles wildly down into the corner of the page. Giacometti's splendidly battered mug peers from under a cartoonishly rippled forehead.

Dispensing with mere chronology, the quirky but beguiling arrangement of images has been supervised by C-B himself. Picasso, Alexander Calder and Edmund Wilson appear to have been coralled on the same double-spread because of their huge, balloon-like heads. A tilt of the head results in the yoking of Jean Renoir and Arthur Miller. John Huston and Edith Piaf (looking surprisingly good in 1946) are two unlikely bedfellows who share a spread owing to their introspective expressions. Similarly, it is doubtful if two of Cartier-Bresson's distinguished subjects, Henri Laurens and Mohammed Ali Jinnah, would entirely appreciate having a perceived similarity with "a eunuch of the last Chinese imperial dynasty".

Most readers will know the identities of Laurens and Jinnah - respectively, a prominent Cubist and the first governor-general of Pakistan - but I had to look them up in a biographical dictionary. Indeed, I discovered that I was ignorant of around a third of the photographer's subjects. For a collection of portraits, Tete a Tete is wilfully uninformative, giving away no more than the name of the subject and the year of the photograph. It would have been much improved by a one-line biography of each subject. Perhaps the reason for this taciturnity is to ensure that viewers concentrate purely on the aesthetics, but this seems particularly pointless in a book devoted to celebrities.

But what an incomparable galere. There is the angular Saul Steinberg, looking exactly like one of his own creations; the sublimely odd Colette beneath her electrically-charged aureole of hair; the uxoriously simpering Duke of Windsor; the wounded, beautiful Carson McCullers; the young Truman Capote, exotic and poisonous as a hot-house bloom. This is an album of wonders.

Christopher Hirst

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