Irving Penn was born June 16, 1917 in Plainfield, N.J. Educated in public schools, he attended the Philadelphia Museum School of Art from 1934 to 1938, where Alexey Brodovitch taught him advertising design. While training for a career as an art director, Penn worked the last two summers for Harper's Bazaar magazine as an office boy and apprentice artist, sketching shoes. At this time he had no thought of becoming a photographer. Upon his return to New York, Irving won an audience with Alexander Liberman, art director of Vogue magazine, who hired Penn as his assistant, specifically to suggest photographic covers for Vogue. The staff photographers didn't think much of his ideas, but Liberman did and asked Penn to take the pictures himself.

Penn's photography is best known through magazines; his first photographs were for the printed page, not the photographic print. Through the influence and resources of his sponsors—after 1943 predominately Condé Nast—he has made portraits of some of this century's most important artists and has photographed the most beautiful women dressed by the most distinctive couturiers. Penn's career included work at Vogue magazine, and independent advertising work for clients including Issey Miyake and Clinique. His work has been exhibited internationally.
Penn worked on professional and artistic projects across multiple genres. He was a master printer of both black-and-white and color photography and published more than nine books of his photographs and two of his drawings during his lifetime.

Penn died in 2009; his work is still widely exhibited around the world, and is held in major collections including the Art Institute of Chicago; J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; National Portrait Gallery, London; National Gallery of Art, Washington and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, amongst others. In 2013 The Irving Penn Foundation donated 100 images to the Smithsonian American Art Museum, bringing the number of works in their collection to 161.