Berenice Abbott Biography

Bernice Abbott, also known as Bernice Abbott, was a renowned American photographer recognized for her monochrome photography capturing the architecture and urban designs of New York City in the 1930s. She started her artistic journey studying sculpture in Ohio before moving to New York City, where she encountered influential modernist visionaries like Man Ray. Under his guidance, Abbott delved into photography in the early 1920s, drawing inspiration from the works of Eugene Atgel. Eventually, she established her own Portrait studio in Paris, photographing notable artists and literary figures of the time. In collaboration with Paul Strand, she co-founded the ‘Photo League’ in 1936. Abbott’s contributions extended beyond capturing images as she also taught at the New York School for Social Research until 1958. Her groundbreaking photographs of New York were showcased in the exhibition ‘Changing New York’ at the Museum of the City in 1937. Later in her career, she ventured into illustrating the laws of physics through her photography. Bernice Abbott’s revolutionary approach to documentary photography left an indelible mark on the field, and she continued to pursue her passion until her passing in 1991.

Quick Facts

  • Died At Age: 93
  • Died on: December 9, 1991
  • U.S. State: Ohio
  • Lesbians
  • American Women

Childhood & Early Life

Berenice Abbott was born in Springfield, Ohio and raised by her divorced mother. She was the youngest of four children, with two brothers and two sisters. After her second divorce, her mother frequently moved the family to different cities in Ohio, including Cincinnati, Columbus, and Cleveland. Her sister got married at an early age to escape their home, but the marriage was not successful due to conflicts. Berenice finished her grade school in Cleveland and then attended Cleveland’s Lincoln High School, where she took college preparatory courses. She graduated from the school in 1917, just a few months before the United States entered World War I.

Education and Early Career

In February 1917, Berenice enrolled in a journalism course at Ohio State University in Columbus. However, she had to discontinue the course when her literature professor, who was German, was dismissed. In 1918, she moved to New York’s Greenwich Village with her college friends. There, she was adopted by the anarchist Hippolyte Havel and lived in an apartment with other writers, philosophers, and literary critics. During this time, she lost interest in journalism and became interested in theater and sculpture. She interacted with artists like Eugene O’Neill, Man Ray, and Sadakichi Hartmann and became actively involved with the Provincetown Playhouse.

Career in Europe

In 1921, Berenice moved to Europe. Along with her work in visual arts, she also published poetry in the experimental literary journal ‘Transition’. It was around this time that she adopted the French spelling of her first name, ‘Berenice’, at the suggestion of Djuna Barnes. In 1923, she was introduced to photography by Man Ray, who hired her as a darkroom assistant at his portrait studio in Montparnasse. She worked for him for four years in Paris and discovered her talent as a photographer.

Return to New York and Documentary Photography

In 1929, Berenice returned to New York and gave up portrait photography to focus on documentary photography. She used the city as her subject and undertook a project to capture the transformation of New York into a modern urban center. In 1935, she moved into Greenwich Village with art critic Elizabeth McCausland, with whom she lived until her death. McCausland supported Abbott in many ways, from contributing articles on her photography to providing emotional support during difficult times.

Major Works and Later Career

Berenice Abbott’s first solo exhibition took place in 1926 at the Parisian gallery Le Sacre du Printemps. The exhibition featured her portrait photography, including portraits of notable figures associated with art movements. In the same year, she started her own studio on rue du Bac. From 1935 to 1939, she worked on a series of documentary photographs of New York City as part of a Federal Works Project Administration initiative. She published these photographs in a book titled ‘Changing New York’. In 1940, she became the picture editor for ‘Science Illustrated’ and included scientific images in her work. She continued to work as a science photographer and published her last book, ‘A Portrait of Maine’, in 1968.

Awards and Achievements

Berenice Abbott received the Deutscher Fotobuchpreis Award, a German photo book prize, for her outstanding work in visual-led book publishing. In 1991, she was inducted into the Ohio Women’s Hall of Fame for her black-and-white photography of New York City architecture and urban design in the 1930s.


Some of Berenice Abbott’s most notable photographs include “Under the El at the Battery,” “Night View,” and the “Portrait of James Joyce.”

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