In 1917, Abbott enrolled very briefly at Ohio State University to study journalism. Dissatisfied with the university system, she moved to New York City in 1918. There, Abbott worked several jobs as a waitress, yarn dyer, and volunteer at the Provincetown Playhouse, occasionally playing several minor roles in various productions.
In 1921, Abbott moved to Paris with the intention of pursuing a career in sculpture, a medium she had become interested in while living in New York. Initially she had no interest in photography, and had no intention of becoming anything but a good darkroom assistant. She was efficient and diligent, and soon found herself immensely enjoying the processs, and eventually became a dark room assistant to Man Ray, who she had previously known in New York.
In time, and after encouragement from Man Ray, Abbott began making her own photographs. She said "the first I took came out well, which surprised me. I had no idea of becoming a photographer, but the pictures kept coming out and most of them were good. Some were very good and I decided perhaps I could charge something for my work." Her artistic instinct with photographic imaging was natural. Within a year she had opened her own portrait studio, which was also her home at 44 rue de Bac.
After reading Andre Siegfried's America Comes of Age, Abbott decided to return to America. She arrived in New York City in February 1929 and found that the city had grown tremendously. Undoubtedly influenced by Eugène Atget who had photographed old Paris, Abbott's first thought was "Old New York" must be photographed from every aspect. Abbott opened a portrait studio in the Hotel des Artistes, and soon her portraits and images of the city were published in magazines such as Vanity Fair, The Saturday Review of Literature, The Saturday Evening Post, Theater Guild Magazine and Fortune.
In her later life, Abbott was fascinated by science and the power it holds over every day life. She delved into more technical pursuits, inventing and patenting new photographic equipment and gadgets, and in 1944 she was named Science Illustrated's photography editor. While that project was short lived, she continued to create images for American biology and physics textbooks. From 1947 to 1959 she founded the "House of Photography" corporation with gallery owner Hudson Walker, wherein various photographic equipment was invented.
Berenice's long time partner, Elizabeth McCauseland, a newspaper critic who helped Abbott with her iconic Changing New York project, died in 1965. Abbott eventually moved to Maine for the last few decades of her life, after having photographed A Portrait of Maine in the 1960's. In 1991, Berenice Abbott passed away at the age of 93, leaving behind a prolific legacy in the world of photography.