Berenice Abbott

Berenice Abbott

Berenice Abbott (July, 1898 – December, 1991), was an American photographer born in Springfield, Ohio. Best known for her black-and-white photography of New York City architecture and urban design of the 1930s.Throughout her career, Abbott’s photography was very much a display of the rise in development in technology and society. Her works documented and praised the New York landscape. This was all guided by her belief that a modern day invention such as the camera deserved to document the early 20th century.

Portrait by Man Ray, 1920s

Abbott was a master photographer and is recognised as the originator of documentary photography or photojournalism. No other photographer, man or woman, had yet envisioned it as a tool of realistic documentation.

Abbott went to Paris in 1921, spending two years studying sculpture in Paris and latter in Berlin. During this time, she adopted the French spelling of her first name, “Berenice,” (changing it from Bernice). As a young artist, Abbott took individual portraits that seem intended for posterity. Some of these included James Joyce, Lelia Walker, Coco Chanel and Edna St. Vincent Millay. She would take six shots per sitting. In 1925, Man Ray introduced her to Eugène Atget’s photographs. She became a great admirer of Atget’s work, and managed to persuade him to sit for a portrait in 1927. He died shortly thereafter.

I didn’t decide to be a photographer; I just happened to fall into it. – Berenice Abbott

In early 1929, Abbott moved to New York. During the 1930s she photographed it changing, from one day to the next; buildings destroyed, rebuilt but not replaced. She worked tirelessly, shooting artful documentations of streets and boroughs. Using this large format camera, Abbott photographed New York City with the diligence and attention to detail she had so admired in Eugène Atget. Her work has provided a historical chronicle of many now-destroyed buildings and neighbourhoods of Manhattan. In 1935 Abbott moved into a Greenwich Village loft with the art critic Elizabeth McCausland, with whom she lived until McCausland’s death in 1965. McCausland was an ardent supporter of Abbott, writing several articles for the Springfield Daily Republican, as well as for Trend and New Masses (the latter under the pseudonym Elizabeth Noble). In addition, McCausland contributed the captions for the book of Abbott’s photographs entitled Changing New York which was published in 1939.


To keep money coming in, Abbott wrote and illustrated how-to books on photography, which were later reprinted to become the standard works for photographic techniques. Abbott’s style of straight photography helped her make important contributions to scientific photography. In 1958, she produced a series of photographs for a high-school physics text-book, including the cover titled Bouncing ball in diminishing arcs.

Photography can only represent the present. Once photographed, the subject becomes part of the past. – Bernice Abbott

About 2 decades after Changing New York, Abbott and McCausland travelled “US 1” from Florida to Maine, and Abbott photographed the small towns and growing automotive-related architecture. The project resulted in more than 2,500 negatives.

Shortly after, Abbott underwent a lung operation. She was told she should move from New York City due to air pollution and she moved Monson, Maine remaining there until her death in 1991.

Today we are confronted with reality on the vastest scale mankind has known [and this puts] a greater responsibility on the photographer. – Berenice Abbott

Thank you to to Museum of the City of New York who funded a lot of Abbott’s photography and currently hold a large archive of her work.


Berenice Abbott: Changing New York [Hardcover]

  • ISBN-10: 1565843770
  • ISBN-13: 978-1565843776

Documenting Science [Hardcover]

  • ISBN-10: 3869304316
  • ISBN-13: 978-3869304311

New York in the Thirties (New York City) [Paperback]

  • ISBN-10: 048622967X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0486229676





One Response to 'Berenice Abbott'

  1. What a beautiful, lost world. Thanks for posting this.

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