Berenice Abbott was born in Springford, Ohio, in 1898. After graduating from Ohio State University she moved to New York to study journalism, but eventually decided on sculpture and painting.
It was the time of prohibition, illegal speakeasies and real estate speculation. Abbott like other aspiring artists who had come to Greenwich Village to escape America's increasing commercialism felt alienated. Many left for Paris. Berenice Abbott joined the exodus in the spring of 1921. When Berenice Abbott met her fellow American Man Ray in Paris, who had also moved there in 1921, he was looking for a new darkroom assistant. Someone who would follow his orders and advice. That is how Abbott became a photographer. At Man Ray's thriving studio in Montparnasse she quickly learned from the master of stylization and abstract composition.Instead of a pay rise Man Ray offered her his studio to make her own portraits. Quickly, her reputation rivaled his. Their styles however differed since Abbott favored naturalness and spontaneity.
Abbott returned to the United States in 1929 and embarked on a project to photograph New York. In 1935 she managed to obtain funding for this venture from the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and its Federal Art Project.
From 1935 until 1939, she devoted her time to photographing the city, a project she named in April 1936: "Changing New York". It was a very ambitious one with three sections: "Material Aspect" was divided into buildings (historical, picturesque, architecturally significant, deluxe) and city squares; "Means of Life" was divided into transportation, communications, service of supplies; "People and How They Live" was planned with seven sections: types, city streets, interiors, recreation, culture and education, religion, signs of the crisis.
Berenice Abbott died at her home in Maine on December 9, 1991.