Mapplethorpe worked primarily in the studio, particularly towards the end of his career. Common subjects include flowers, especially orchids and calla lilies, and celebrities, including Andy Warhol, Deborah Harry, Richard Gere, Peter Gabriel, Grace Jones, and Patti Smith. Smith was a longtime roommate of Mapplethorpe and a frequent subject in his photography, including a stark, iconic photograph that appears on the cover of Smith's first album, Horses.
Other work includes homoerotic and BDSM acts (including coprophagia), and classical nudes. Mapplethorpe's X Portfolio series sparked national attention in the early 1990s when it was included in The Perfect Moment, a traveling exhibition funded by National Endowment for the Arts.