For many Western nations, and some countries in other parts of the world, the turn of the 20th century was a time of modern invention, intense art production, and relative peace. The French called this period La Belle Époque, meaning “the beautiful era.” During this time, in the early 1900s, the modern city emerged, shaped by industry, innovations in transportation (especially railroads), and mass migrations of people (including a wave of European immigration to America). Among the cities that changed most completely and rapidly was Paris, its growth driven by advances in technology and engineering.

In manufacturing, machine-based production displaced handcrafted goods, while in farming, machines changed labor and production methods. Factories began springing up in suburbs outside the city. Methods of cross-continental transportation—like the railroad and the steamship—moved both people and goods in and out of urban centers at an unprecedented rate. In Paris, residents were either awed or repelled by modern engineering marvels like the new subway system and the Eiffel Tower.

The opinions of those living through these metamorphoses of modern life varied. Some people were excited by what they saw as great progress, others feared that machines would make human beings obsolete. For many artists, photographers, designers, and architects, the modern city became an important subject. They developed new ways to document the dramatic changes they witnessed all around them, and sometimes took a central role in transforming the urban landscape.

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