Penn was born to a Russian family on June 16, 1917 in Plainfield, New Jersey. He attended the Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art (now the University of the Arts) from 1934 to 1938, where he studied drawing, painting, graphics, and industrial arts.
Penn worked for two years as a freelance designer and making his first amateur photographs before taking a position as the art director in 1940. Penn remained at Saks for a year before leaving to spend a year painting and taking photographs in Mexico and across the US. When Penn returned to New York he was offered a position at Vogue magazine Art Department.
Penn's first photographic cover for Vogue magazine appeared in October 1943. The art department of the Office of War Information in London offered him a job as an "artist-photographer" but he volunteered with the American Field Service instead. After arriving in Naples with a boatload of American troops in November 1944. In July 1945, he was transferred from Italy to India. He photographed the soldiers, medical operations, and camp life. He sailed back to New York in November 1945.
Penn continued to work at Vogue throughout his career, photographing covers, portraits, still lifes, fashion, and photographic essays. In the 1950s, Penn founded his own studio in New York and began making advertising photographs. More on Irving Penn