The funny thing is that Irving Penn had no intention of becoming a photographer, let alone one of the greatest the medium has ever seen. Beginning his working life as a painter and an advertising designer, Penn's success owes as much to the keen eye of his mentors as it does to his keen eye for fantastic photographs. Originally hired at Vogue to assist in the selection of cover images, his boss, the art director Alexander Lieberman, saw talent in him that Penn didn't see himself. Lieberman asked Penn to arrange a still life for the publication and then handed Penn a camera to take the shot. The photo, of a leather bag, a scarf, and some lemons was Penn's first Vogue cover and the beginning of his photographic career.
The many elegant photos he subsequently took of high fashion were only a small portion of his repertoire. His still life photography enlivened Vogue's articles on beauty, health, and food issue after issue during his long career. Whether the object was a flower or a cigarette butt, it became its most beautiful in Penn's care. And then there was his portraiture. Whether he was photographing the author Truman Capote, or a pompier in Paris, or any of the then extraordinarily exotic ethnic enclaves that he engaged in sittings, he always captured a humanity that was broad, equally dispersed, and uniting. Simple. Elegant. Bare. Penn was the ultimate.