Irving Penn was born in June 1917 in Plainfield, New Jersey. He was the brother of the cineaste Arthur Penn.
He graduated in 1938 from the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art (now the University of the Arts) where he studied drawing, painting, graphic and industrial arts under Alexey Brodovitch.
He got a job in New York as an advertising executive, which he left in 1942 to become a painter in Mexico. When he returned, he destroyed all of his work and used his paintings as a cloth for his dinner table. From then on, he expressed his art through photography – portraits, fashion, stills – and nothing else.
Returning to New York, he won an audience with Alexander Liberman, then Vogue magazine’s art director, who hired Penn as his assistant, specifically to suggest photographic covers but soon enough Liberman asked him to take the pictures himself and his work was first published as the Vogue cover of the issue of October 1943. This assignment launched his career as a photographer.
He met Lisa Fonssagrives at a photo-shoot in 1947 which he then married three years later.
His style was simplistic and minimal, yet it was always very inventive.
He founded his own studio in 1953 asserting “Photographing a cake can be art”. Soon after he began working in Fashion Photography with Vogue magazine and worked for the American, British and French editions throughout the years.
Penn’s subjects varied a lot and people rarely understood his work until years after its creation.
He was one of the first photographers to get his models to pose in front of a white or grey background. This is how he made the portraits of Martha Graham, Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso, Georgia O’Keeffe, W. H. Auden, Igor Stravinsky. He enjoyed working on things intrigued him, and god knows he was intrigued by many surprising things – he took a series of pictures of naked women of all shapes, rubbish he found on the pavement in New York, works on recreating a crime scene…
In 1958 Irving Penn was named one of “The World’s 10 Greatest Photographers” in an international poll conducted by Popular Photography Magazine.
In the late 1960s, he began to work on a new project. He wanted to take pictures of every different types of indigenous around the world. To succeed he went all around the world with his itinerant studio. The portraits were published in 1967 under the title “Worlds in a small room”. People were impressed with the technique he used that recalled the one that was used in the old days bringing intensity to the portraits. Soon after, he took on a similar project, taking pictures of all the little jobs that were on the verge of dying out in New York (called project “Small Trades”).
In later years he turned to television commercials as an outlet for his unique talent.
Penn has been represented in many important photographic collections, including those of the Museum of Modem Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Addison Gallery of American Art, and the Baltimore Museum of Art.
He died aged 92 in October 2009 at his home in Manhattan.
The Irving Penn Archives, a collection of personal items and materials relating to his career, are held by the Ryerson & Burnham Libraries at the Art Institute of Chicago.