Robert Mapplethorpe was an American photographer, known for his highly stylised black-and-white portraits, still lives, and erotic imagery. His often controversial and provocative work challenged societal norms because of its explicitly homoerotic and sadomasochistic themes (Tikkanen, 2023). Nonetheless, his photographs challenge us while presenting us with images of classical beauty.

“I’m looking for the unexpected. I’m looking for things I’ve never seen before.”
-Robert Mapplethorpe, Art News, 1988

Life of an Artist: Robert Mapplethorpe - Sheet1
Self Portrait, 1985_©The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

Overview of the Artist | Robert Mapplethorpe

Robert Mapplethorpe was born on November 4, 1946, in Floral Park, New York. He grew up in a middle-class family and attended Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where he studied drawing, painting, and sculpture. During his time at Pratt, Mapplethorpe became interested in photography and began to develop his unique style.

In the initial phase of his career, Robert Mapplethorpe turned his lens towards the vibrant and dynamic underground culture of New York City. He sought to capture the essence of the city’s diverse communities, including those in the gay BDSM scene. His early work reflected his fascination with the human body and its capacity for pleasure and pain. Mapplethorpe’s photographs of this scene were a bold and unapologetic statement that celebrated the queer experience and challenged the societal norms of gender and sexuality. Mapplethorpe’s photographs captured the grit and glamour of this time, and he quickly gained a reputation for his daring and provocative imagery.

He was a part of the vibrant artistic community of the 1970s and 80s, which included artists such as Patti Smith, David Wojnarowicz, and Cindy Sherman. Mapplethorpe’s photographs captured the grit and glamour of this time, and he quickly gained a reputation for his daring and provocative imagery.

Life of an Artist: Robert Mapplethorpe - Sheet2
Tulips, 1987_©The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

Career- Philosophy, Style of Work, and Medium of Art

Mapplethorpe’s style is characterised by its stark black-and-white contrast, formal composition, and focus on the human form. His portraits are often intense and striking, capturing the essence of his subjects in a revealing and intimate way. On the other hand, his still lives is carefully composed and highly stylized, showcasing his meticulous attention to detail.

Throughout his career, Mapplethorpe’s work was marked by a fascination with the human body and its capacity for pleasure and pain. He explored this theme through his images of BDSM culture and his series of flower photographs, which are both beautiful and subtly erotic.

Mapplethorpe’s philosophy was deeply influenced by his own experiences as a gay man living in a society that often marginalised and demonised homosexuality. His work was a celebration of the queer experience and a challenge to the rigid norms of gender and sexuality that were prevalent at the time. His photographs were not just beautiful images; they were political statements, calling for acceptance and understanding of LGBTQ+ people.

Mapplethorpe’s career began with Polaroid photographs that he took to use in his collages. His first solo exhibition, “Polaroids,” was held in 1973 at the Light Gallery in New York City. In 1975, he switched to a more advanced Hasselblad camera and started photographing the people in his life, including musicians, artists, and pornographic film stars. He continued to develop his style and explore new techniques throughout the 1980s, despite being diagnosed with AIDS in 1986. In 1988, he had his first major exhibition at The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, just a year before his death.

Patti Smith (1976, printed 2005) ©Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

Recognition after Death | Robert Mapplethorpe

Mapplethorpe’s work continued to be controversial even after he died in 1989 from complications related to HIV/AIDS. The government seized his most infamous work, the X Portfolio, in 1990 on charges of obscenity. This sparked a national debate about the role of art in society and the limits of free expression.

Despite the controversy, Mapplethorpe’s influence on the art world has only grown over the years. His photographs have been exhibited in museums and galleries worldwide, and his legacy has inspired countless artists and photographers to push the boundaries of what is considered acceptable in art.

His vast, provocative, and powerful body of work has established him as one of the twentieth century’s most important artists. Today, Mapplethorpe is represented by galleries in North and South America, Europe and Asia and his work can be found in the collections of major museums worldwide. Beyond his creations’ artistic and cultural significance, the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation carries on his legacy. To promote photography, aid museums that display photographic art, and support medical research in the fight against HIV/AIDS, he founded the Foundation in 1988.

In conclusion, Robert Mapplethorpe was an artist who challenged the status quo and pushed the limits of what was considered acceptable in art. His work was beautiful and provocative, and his impact on the world of art and society cannot be overstated. His legacy has continued inspiring artists and thinkers to question societal norms and push the boundaries of what is possible. Mapplethorpe’s work is a testament to the power of art to challenge and provoke and to the enduring legacy of those who dare to push beyond the limits of what is considered acceptable.


  • Anon., n.d. The Photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe. [Online]
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    [Accessed 27 04 2023].
  • Foundation, T. R. M., n.d. The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation. [Online]
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    [Accessed 27 04 2023].
  • Tikkanen, A., 2023. Robert Mapplethorpe American photographer. [Online]
    Available at:
    [Accessed 27 04 2023].

Riddhi Sarda is a postgraduate in Urban Planning and holds a bachelor’s degree in architecture. As a research professional with 2 years of experience, Riddhi is driven to make a meaningful difference in society through her work. Besides being a research enthusiast, she is also a passionate digital artist and a self-help reader.