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, beginning a fruitful collaboration with the magazine that continues to this day. In addition to his editorial and fashion work for Vogue, Penn has photographed for other magazines and for a number of commercial clients in America and around the world.
He has published nine books of photographs: 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); Earthly Bodies (2002); A Notebook at Random (2004); and two books of drawings.
Penn's photographs are in the collections of major museums in America and throughout the world, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Moderna Museet in Stockholm, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which honored him with a retrospective exhibition in 1984. That exhibition was circulated to museums in twelve countries. In 1997, Penn made a major donation of prints and archival material to the Art Institute of Chicago. He made his gift of the Platinum Test Materials collages and 85 corresponding prints as well as archival material to the National Gallery of Art in 2002 and 2003.