Berenice Abbott, born June 17, 1898, in Springfield, Ohio, first studied journalism at Ohio State University, then sculpture in New York and Paris (with Constantin Brancusi, among others). Starting in 1923, she worked as an assistant to Man Ray in Paris for two years, and then opened her own photo studio, in which members of the Paris bohème, for example Peggy Guggenheim, James Joyce and Jean Cocteau, had their portraits done. Later on she would remark about this turn her life took: "I didn't decide to be a photographer, I just happened to fall into it".
Through Man Ray, Berenice Abbott came into contact with the work of the French photographer Eugène Atget, who documented the Paris of his time in impressive photographs. She recognized the significance of Atget’s extraordinary pictures and acquired some of his photographs and negatives.
In 1929, she returned to New York with the goal of capturing the rapidly changing cityscape, using Atget’s example. Abbott found traces of the boom after the Great Depression in architecture: a veritable "skyscraper boom" erupted in New York. Her photographs were exhibited, and in 1939 they were published in the photo volume Changing New York. Many of the buildings that can be seen there do not exist anymore.
Beginning in 1934 for more than twenty years, Berenice Abbott taught photography at the New York School for Social Research; she still worked as a portrait and architectural photographer. From 1958 she worked for the Physical Science Study Commitee of Educational Services, where she dealt with scientific photography.
Abbott was of great importance for the discovery of Eugène Atget’s photographs and for the recognition he received for them: she wrote a book about his work ("The World of Atget") and subsequently sold her collection of his photographs to the New York MoMA. Berenice Abbott lived after 1952 in rural Maine, which also became the subject of her last published book of photographs, "A Portrait of Maine" (1968).
The pioneer of documentary photography died on December 9, 1991, in Monson, Maine.