Penn was born on June 16, 1917 in Plainfield, New Jersey, to Harry Penn and Sonia Greenberg. Penn's younger brother, Arthur Penn was born in 1922 and would go on to become a film director and producer. Penn 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 under Alexey Brodovitch. While still a student, Penn worked under Brodovitch at Harper's Bazaar which published several of Penn's drawings.
Penn worked for two years as a freelance designer and making his first amateur photographs before taking Brodovitch's position as the art director at Saks Fifth Avenue in 1940. Penn remained at Saks Fifth Avenue 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, Alexander Liberman offered him a position as an associate in the Vogue magazine Art Department. Penn worked on layout for the magazine before Liberman asked him to try photography.
Best known for his fashion photography, Penn's repertoire also includes portraits of creative greats; ethnographic photographs from around the world; Modernist still lifes of food, bones, bottles, metal, and found objects; and photographic travel essays. Penn was among the first photographers to pose subjects against a simple grey or white backdrop and he effectively used this simplicity. Expanding his austere studio surroundings, Penn constructed a set of upright angled backdrops, to form a stark, acute corner. Subjects photographed with this technique included Martha Graham, Marcel Duchamp, Pablo Picasso, Georgia O'Keeffe, W. H. Auden, and Igor Stravinsky. He said that "A good photograph is one that communicates a fact, touches the heart, and leaves the viewer a changed person for having seen it; it is in one word, effective".
Penn's still life compositions are spare and highly organized, assemblages of food or objects that articulate the abstract interplay of line and volume. Penn's photographs are composed with a great attention to detail, which continues into his craft of developing and making prints of his photographs. Penn experimented with many printing techniques, including prints made on aluminum sheets coated with a platinum emulsion rendering the image with a warmth that untoned silver prints lacked. His black and white prints are notable for their deep contrast, giving them a clean, crisp look.
While steeped in the Modernist tradition, Penn also ventured beyond creative boundaries. The exhibition of Earthly Bodies consisted of series of posed nudes whose physical shapes range from thin to plump; while the photographs were taken in 1949 and 1950, they were not exhibited until 1980, perhaps in part because of questions about the public reception of the graphic representations of the female nude.
Penn's first photographic cover for Vogue magazine appeared in October 1943. Penn continued to work at the magazine 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. Over the years, Penn's list of clients grew to include General Foods, De Beers, Issey Miyake, and Clinique. Penn met fashion model Lisa Fonssagrives at a photo shoot in 1947. In 1950, the two married at Chelsea Register Office, and two years later Lisa gave birth to their son, Tom Penn, who would go on to become a metal designer. Lisa Fonssagrives died in 1992. Penn died aged 92 on October 7, 2009 at his home in Manhattan.
The Art Institute of Chicago holds the Irving Penn Paper and Photographic Archives, which were donated to the Ryerson and Burnham Libraries and the Department of Photography in 1995. In addition, the Art Institute of Chicago has more than 200 of Penn's fine art prints in its collection, and has mounted several exhibitions of work by the artist including the retrospective Irving Penn: A Career in Photography (1997–98) which traveled internationally as well as Irving Penn: Underfoot (2013).
The permanent collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum possesses a silver gelatin print of Penn's The Tarot Reader, a photograph from 1949 of Jean Patchett and surrealist painter Bridget Tichenor. In 2013, the museum received 100 images as a gift from the Irving Penn Foundation, significantly increasing the number of Penn's works in the collection to 161 images.