The emergence of the modern city in the early 1900s was shaped by industry, innovations in transportation (railroads in particular), and mass migrations of people. The turn of the 20th century was a time of modern invention, intense art production, and relative peace that the French termed La Belle Époque, or “the beautiful era.” Paris was among the cities in Europe and America that changed and grew most rapidly with advances in technology and engineering. In manufacturing, machine-based production displaced handcrafted goods; machines took up the business of farming, and factories sprung up in suburbs outside the city. Methods of cross-continental transportation—the railroad and steamship—moved both people and goods in and out of urban centers at an unprecedented rate. In Paris, city dwellers were alternately awed or repelled by modern engineering marvels like the new subway system and the Eiffel Tower.
Some people believed that this was wonderful progress; others worried that machines would render humanity obsolete. For artists, photographers, designers, and architects the city became an important subject as they developed new ways of documenting the dramatic changes.
To explore more, click on each artwork thumbnail, then click again on the larger image that appears in the box above.
One who uses a camera or other means to produce photographs.
A rough or unfinished version of any creative work, often made to assist in the completion of a more finished work (noun); to make a rough drawing or painting (verb).
A setting for or a part of a story or narrative.
French for “beautiful era,” a term that describes the period in French history beginning in 1890 and ending at the start of World War I in1914, which was characterized by optimism, relative peace across Europe, and new discoveries in technology and science.
Relating to or characteristic of a city.
Relating to or characteristic of an area, usually residential, on the outskirts of a city.
The visual or narrative focus of a work of art.
A copy or reproduction.
Modern can mean related to current times, but it can also indicate a relationship to a particular set of ideas that, at the time of their development, were new or even experimental.
The natural landforms of a region; also, an image that has natural scenery as its primary focus.
Questions & Activities
Document Your City with Photographs
Make. Photograph your town or city, looking for interesting architecture, landscapes, monuments, or street scenes. During your hunt for interesting scenes, be sure to pay attention to how you frame and crop your image to compose the most visually rich image possible. Think about Atget’s project of recording “documents” rather than art. What are your photos more like, art or documents?
Create Your Own Mini World’s Fair
The 1889 Exposition Universelle, or World’s Fair, took place in Paris and showcased new innovations, recent geographical and scientific discoveries, and works of art. World’s Fairs, or Expos, as they are often called today, still take place and are hosted by various countries.
Conceptualize your own mini world’s fair. Come up with a list of themes or ideas your fair should represent (i.e., technology, innovation, environment, politics, etc.). Include photographs, drawings, or replicas of important inventions already in existence (or drawings or models of your own inventions) that you would like to include in your fair. Consider how your environment influences how you think, work, live, and play.
Design and Advertise a City Improvement
The Paris Métropolitain (subway) improved life in the city by making transportation cleaner and faster. Guimard’s gates helped advertise the Métro, making it the most popular way to travel around Paris.
Step one: Think about something you would like to do to improve your city, neighborhood, or school. Sketch it out.
Step two: Sell the idea in an advertisement of your own design. Think about ways to entice people to use your improvement. What slogans could you use? What celebrities or images would you include?