Robert Mapplethorpe was raised in Queens, a middle child in a Catholic family from which he was later somewhat estranged. He attended Pratt Institute in Brooklyn from 1963 to 1970, taking courses in painting, drawing, and sculpture, with no intention at that time of becoming a photographer. During the 1960s he and poet/musician Patti Smith became close friends, living together for several years, part of that time at the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. Mapplethorpe produced collages, and his jewelry designs had attracted a potential financial backer, but he chose not to continue in that direction. During this period he had also developed an interest in experimental film, exemplified by his feature role in Sandy Daley's Robert Having His Nipple Pierced (1970).
Mapplethorpe had discovered the shops and bookstores on 42nd Street as a teenage art student, and they had a profound effect on his work. His initial interest in photography was, in part, an outgrowth of the collages he had been constructing with images from pornographic magazines. With his first camera, a Polaroid SX-70 provided by the late curator of prints and photographs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, John McKendry, Mapplethorpe was able to produce photographic images of his own. Later he would acquire a 4-by-5-inch view camera, and finally a Hasselblad. Throughout his career, Mapplethorpe used a variety of photographic processes, including photogravure, Polaroid, platinum prints on paper and linen, cibachrome, and dye transfer. He did not have a strong interest in darkroom processes, so he worked closely with his technician to obtain the look he wanted in his work.
Mapplethorpe produced photographs for liquor advertisements as well as for fashion and interior design publications, and he was known for his portraits of entertainment and art world celebrities. During the 1970s he was the staff photographer for Andy Warhol's Interview magazine, and his photographs appeared in journals such as Vogue and Esquire. His last commissioned portrait was of U.S. Surgeon General C.Everett Koop for Time magazine, taken less than two months before the artist's death. Mapplethorpe was an avid collector of photography, arts and crafts pottery, and furniture (which he also designed). Books featuring the artist's photographs include, Certain People: A Book of Portraits, (Pasadena, Twelvetrees Press, 1985), and 50 New York Artists by Richard Marshall (San Francisco, Chronicle Books, 1986).
Mapplethorpe's first one-man exhibition was held in 1976 at the Light Gallery, New York. Major exhibitions of his work have been held at the Chrysler Museum, Norfolk, Virginia (1978), Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art (1978), International Center of Photography, New York (1979), Van Reekum Museum, Apeldoorn, the Netherlands (1980), Kunstverein, Frankfurt am Main (1981), Contemporary Art Center, New Orleans (1982), Musée national d'art modern, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris (1983), Institute of Contemporary Art, London (1983), Centro di Documentazione di Palazzo Fortuny, Venice (1983), Hara Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo (1984), Australian Center for Contemporary Art, South Yarra, Victoria, and Melbourne (1986), Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam (1988), National Portrait Gallery, London (1988), Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania (1988), and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (1988). In 1988 the artist established the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation with the dual purpose of providing funds for AIDS research and for the visual arts. (Fine/Corlett 1991, 187-188)