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Born in Queens, NY, Robert Mapplethorpe attended classes at Parsons School of Design while he was a teenager, working mostly with collage and mixed media. There he met fellow artist and musician Patti Smith, who posed in some of his earliest portraits of famous figures, and developed his love of photography as a medium separate from his collages.

In the late 1960’s he worked as a photographer for Andy Warhol‘s Interview magazine. Mapplethorpe began taking Polaroids of his family, friends, and public personalities regularly, and in the late 1970s, focused primarily on intimate, sexually charged images, which is what brought Mapplethorpe significant critical attention. Mapplethorpe later did a series on female bodybuilder Lisa Lyons, as well as images of dramatic, classical nudes, carefully composed still lifes, and engaging portraits.

In 1986, he was diagnosed with AIDS, and over the next three years, continued to photograph fervently. He also established the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, dedicated to supporting photography and AIDS research. He had his first major American retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1988, just a year before his death