Penn’s talent for picturing his subjects with compositional clarity and economy earned him the widespread admiration of readers of Vogue during his long association with the magazine, beginning in 1943. It also brought him recognition in the art world; his photographs have been exhibited in museums and galleries and are prized by collectors.
He was most famous for photographing Parisian fashion models and the world’s great cultural figures, but he seemed equally at home photographing Peruvian peasants or bunion pads.
A courtly man whose gentle demeanor masked an intense perfectionism, Penn adopted the pose of a humble craftsman while helping to shape a field known for putting on airs. Although schooled in painting and design, he chose to define himself as a photographer, scraping his early canvases of paint so that they might serve a more useful life as backdrops to his pictures.
Penn had the good fortune of working for and collaborating with two of the twentieth century’s most inventive and influential magazine art directors, Alexey Brodovitch and Alexander Liberman.
He studied with Brodovitch in Philadelphia as a young man and came to New York in 1937 as his unpaid design assistant at Harper’s Bazaar. But it was under Liberman, at Vogue, that Penn forged his career as a photographer.