Berenice Abbott was born in Springfield, Ohio on July 17, 1898. She studied journalism briefly at Ohio State University before leaving to pursue her interest in sculpture independently in New York. In 1921 she moved to Paris and became a part of the American expatriate society. Abbott learned photography as an assistant in Man Ray’s studio from 1923 to 1925; Man Ray encouraged her to take portraits. She then established herself as an independent portrait photographer, taking portraits of eminent figures such as Max Ernst. She differentiated her work from Man Ray’s by attempting to capture natural facial expressions and gestures. This intimate style of portraiture became synonymous with Abbott. Her first solo show was in Le Sacre du Printemps in 1926. Her critical reputation was established in 1928 in the group exhibition Premier Salon Independant de la Photographie.

In Man Ray’s studio Abbott came into contact with Eugène Atget (1857-1927), a documentary photographer of Paris, whose work played an immensely influential role in the photographs she would later produce. Abbott purchased thousands of negatives and prints from Atget’s studio before returning to New York in 1929. Following Atget’s example, she set out to photo-document the city of New York (its people and architecture). The outcome was the publication of Changing New York (1939).

Experimentation followed: Abbott pursued scientific photography in the 1940s and 1950s, developing her own equipment and techniques. Between 1958 and 1961 she worked for the Physical Science Study Committee of Educational Services, taking photographs to illustrate the laws of physics, which were featured in three publications. Abbott moved to Maine in 1966, where she continued to produce documentary photographs, published in A Portrait of Maine (1968). In this late period Abbott was to organise and print her earlier works, several portfolios of which were published by Parasol Press. Abbott’s work was recognized with exhibitions dedicated to her in the Smithsonian Museum (1969), the Museum of Modern Art (1970), and the New York Public Library (1989). Abbott died in Maine on December 9, 1991.