Berenice Abbott was born in Springfield, Ohio, in 1898. She briefly
studied journalism at Ohio State University before leaving for New York
where she lived on MacDougal Street in the middle of the Bohemian community
in Greenwich Village. She performed small roles in plays before contracting
influenza that killed thousands of New Yorkers and nearly killed her.
After she recovered, Abbott returned to New York determined to become
a sculptor. At this time, she met and befriended the artists, Man Ray
and Marcel Duchamp. Her friendship with Man Ray would prove pivotal
in her photography career. Like so many young American artists in the
early twentieth-century, she left for Paris seeking an artistic freedom
which not available in America at the time. After living there a few
years, Abbott decided to study in Berlin; however, she quickly returned
to Paris only to find herself without a studio or income.
Her old friend, Man Ray, had opened a portrait studio in 1921 and
was looking for an assistant who knew nothing about photography. Berenice
Abbott knew nothing about photography, so she was a perfect fit. She
took to the new medium quickly, and soon her reputation rivaled his
as a portrait photographer. After two years, she opened her own studio
and was very successful at getting portrait commissions including James
Joyce, Jean Cocteau, Peggy Guggenheim, and Eugene Atget. She photographed
Atget just before his death in 1927. Abbott had become very fond of
his wonderful views of Paris and had purchased several of his photographs.
After his death, she persisted in purchasing his estate and saving his
work for future generations.
After returning to New York in 1929 for a short visit, she was overwhelmed
with the changes in the United States and City of New York. She quickly
decided that she wanted to return to New York and document the changing
city as Atget had done in Paris. Although it took several years to get
backing for her Changing New York project, eventually with the assistance
of The Museum of the City of New York and the WPA, she was able to begin
one of the greatest projects of her fabulous career.
We are pleased to offer this wonderful collection of vintage photographs
from the Changing New York series. This is not only because of our interest
overall in images of New York over the last three hundred years, but
also because Berenice Abbott photographed my father, Kenneth M. Newman,
and my grandmother, Helen Newman. For a short period of time during
the early 1940's, Abbott also took promotional photographs in The Old
A biography and a full description of the Changing New York photographs
can be found in Berenice Abbott: Changing New York by Bonnie Yochelson
published by The Museum of the City of New York, 1997.