Hailing from Ohio, Berenice Abbott spent a short time studying Journalism at Ohio State University before moving to New York City, where her photographs of local streets and landmarks would garner her critical acclaim as an artist. Abbott would say that she fell into her career as a photographer; she initially acted as an assistant to Man Ray in Paris, where under his mentorship she experimented with the medium. By 1926 she hosted her first solo exhibition, mainly showcasing her portraits. She subsequently developed a fascination with street photography, which would become the subject of her most famous works.
In 1929, Abbott moved from Paris to New York, using the city as her backdrop, subject, and greatest artistic inspiration. She lived here during an era of great change, documenting the city’s aesthetic evolution from the Great Depression to the rise of industrialization. This would prompt a series of famous photographs titled Changing New York, taken as part of the Federal Art Project in the 1930s.
The 300-plus photographs in Changing New York document the city’s ever-evolving urban landscape, and provide unique insight into daily life in this turbulent yet ever-hopeful era. Abbott had a masterful eye for lighting, capturing the sincere beauty in otherwise mundane objects. Geometry is a common theme in her work, as she had a particular interest in architecture and design. As a result, many of her photographs capture the stunning details of buildings and bridges.
Changing New York was divided into eight geographical sections, and contributed some of the most complete visual documentation of the city at this time. Abbott had a true passion for New York in all of its gritty industrialism, but played with the subjective nature of reality through lighting, shading, and perspective. Old landmarks are in the shadow of new buildings; Great Depression-era poverty is juxtaposed with the rebounding New York City Stock Exchange; Abbott’s work was a push towards modernity, and her project unfolded like a love letter to the city.
Abbott went on to edit the photographs for Science Illustrated in the 1940s, which saw her shift in focus to science photography in the 1960s. She subsequently authored several guidebooks on photographic techniques, and in 1958, she produced a special photo series for a physics textbook – thus her work circulated around the country in a different capacity. Talented and resourceful, she also invented specialized equipment to facilitate the specific nature of her work. Abbott continued her work in photography until her death in 1991 at the age of 93. She was later inducted into the International Photography Hall of Fame and Museum in 2000.