Irving Penn was born in 1917 in Plainfield, New Jersey. In 1934 he enrolled at the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art, where he studied design with Alexey Brodovitch.
In 1938 he began a career in New York as a graphic artist. Then, after a year painting in Mexico, he returned to New York City and began work at Vogue magazine, where Alexander Liberman was art director.
Liberman encouraged Penn to take his first color photograph, a still life that became the 1 October 1943 cover of Vogue. Penn, who became a master of portraiture, fashion, and still life, would go on to make the photographs for 164 more Vogue covers over the next sixty years. In addition to his editorial and fashion work for Vogue, which took him around the world, Penn photographed for other magazines and for a number of commercial clients in America and abroad.
In the 1960s Penn started investigating late-nineteenth-century printing techniques with an eye to achieving greater control over the tonalities of his prints. By the following decade, he had perfected a complex and labor-intensive process for printing in platinum and palladium.
Penn’s published books of photographs include Moments Preserved (1960); Worlds in a Small Room (1974); Inventive Paris Clothes (1977); Flowers (1980); Passage (1991); Irving Penn Regards The Work of Issey Miyake (1999); Still Life (2001); and A Notebook at Random (2004). He also published two books of drawings.
Penn's photographs are in the collections of major museums throughout the world. A retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1984 traveled to museums in twelve countries. In 2002 and 2003 Penn donated the Platinum Test Materials collages and 85 corresponding prints as well as archival material to the National Gallery of Art.