Robert Mapplethorpe was born November 4, 1946, in New York. He left home in 1962 and enrolled at the Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, in 1963, where he studied painting and sculpture and received his B.F.A. in 1970. During this time, he met poet and musician Patti Smith. She encouraged his work and posed for numerous portraits when they lived together in Brooklyn and in the Chelsea Hotel.
It was not Mapplethorpes original intention to be a photographer, and from 1970 to 1974, he mainly made assemblage constructions that incorporate images of men from pornographic magazines with found objects and painting. In order to create his own images for these collages, Mapplethorpe turned to photography, initially using a Polaroid camera. Interested in portraiture, Mapplethorpe worked as a staff photographer for Andy Warhols Interview magazine. He also produced album covers for Smith and the group Television.
Mapplethorpe had his first substantial shows in 1977, both in New York: an exhibition of photographs of flowers at the Holly Solomon Gallery and one of male nudes and sadomasochistic imagery at the Kitchen. Mapplethorpes diverse work - homoerotic images, floral still lifes, pictures of children, commissioned portraits, mixed media sculpture - is united by the constancy of his approach and technique. The surfaces of his prints offer a seemingly endless gradation of blacks and whites, shadow and light, and regardless of subject, his images are both elegant and provocative. Mapplethorpes work has sparked a great deal of controversy due to its content (although the sexually explicit pictures are only a small fraction of his total output). Senator Jesse Helms tried to stop NEA funding for an exhibition of Mapplethorpes work, an action that caused an widespread debate on politicians right to censor publicly funded art (Helms tried the same trick first with an exhibition containing Andres Serranos famous "Piss Christ" photo). This attempt at censorship made Helms a poster boy for reactionary stupidity and boosted public interest in Mapplethorpes work that made the show a great success.
At the end of his life Mapplethorpe did a few self-portraits depicting himself as dying (and thus leaving his impersonal, highly aestheticised style) in one of them he is seen blurred with a scull from a walking stick in the foreground. In another the image is so tightly cropped that only his eyes are shown, greatly enlarged; so as to tell us that Mapplethorpe is gone, only what he has seen is still with us. Mapplethorpe died due to complications from AIDS on March 9, 1989, in Boston.