Penn didn’t start out as a fashion photographer. He joined Vogue in 1943 as a portrait photographer after being recruited by artistic director Alexander Liberman. He immortalised the New York art scene enriched in those years by the Europeans fleeing Nazism. Liberman gave him a studio and some assistants. A studio without any daylight and just a couple of spotlights turned in one direction, adhering to his motto: There’s only one sun!
Having been the art director at Saks before, he was used to working with nothing. For his studio he devised an angle made of two wooden walls… opened at varying degrees. And that was where he positioned his models, who seemed stuck and often as if they’re begging the photographer for air. Couturier Charles James managed to break a wooden mannequin wearing one his creations, as he lay on the floor gazing at the lens. Elsa Schiaparelli tried to escape and Igor Stravinsky cups an ear listening… It was also there that Irving Penn did his first fashion images like Mrs. Amory Carhart, New York, 1947, showing the model in a wedding dress, a sad look on her face, bouquet in hand.
In 1948 Liberman sent him to Peru, a country that was a la mode thanks to the release of the best-seller Lost City of the Incas, that recounted the accidental discovery of Machu Picchu in 1911. Penn flew out of New York with Babs Simpson, who would become his long-term stylist, suitcases of clothes and the up and coming model Jean Patchett. The results came out on February 15th 1949 – a fashion shoot recounting the sojourn of an American in Lima. One image from this shoot became iconic and has passed into posterity: Cafe in Lima (Jean Patchett). It was his first and last fashion shoot that took place outside.