Max Penson was born into a poor bookbinders family in 1893 in the small Belorussian town of Velizh. He managed to finish four classes of the local school before moving to Vilno to enter the art school of S. N. Yuzhanin.  In 1914, after the break up of WW I (and also pogroms), the family moved to Kokand (Turkestan).

After the 1917 revolution he organized in Kokand an art-production labor-school under the authority of the Kokand Revolutionary Committee. He became its director and taught draftsmanship and drawing to 350 Uzbek children studying there. The gift of a camera in 1921 changed his life. From then on, he gave up painting and moved to Tashkent to begin working as a professional photographer. From 1926 until 1949 Penson worked for the Central Asia's largest newspaper, Pravda Vostoka (Truth of the East). In 1937, Max Penson took part in the World Exhibition in Paris winning the Grand Prix for Uzbek Madonna, a portrait of a young woman, unveiled and publicly nursing her child.  In 1939, he photographed the construction of the Grand Fergana Canal, during that time he met Sergei Eisenstein. Penson's archive contains roughly 30,000 images, he documented a radical transformation of Uzbekistan from a highly traditional feudal society into a modern Soviet republic between 1920 and 1940. For example, some images depict women in traditional horsehair veils while in others they wear trousers and drive tractors, previously unheard-of tasks for women in this part of the world. Men are shown digging vast irrigation canals, attending literacy classes and watching sporting events or theatrical performances. Penson's photographs show both an awareness of the Modernist aesthetic (being explored by artists throughout Europe) and an idealisation of life under Soviet rule.

In 1948, accusations of Western influence caused Penson to fall from official favor. Ultimately, rising anti-Semitism caused him to leave his job after 25 years of working at the paper. He died in 1959 as a result of depression and illness.