The film centres around photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, known for his large-scale scale black and white portraits and images of flowers and nudes.
Eliza Dushku, Nate Dushku and Miles Levy are producing the biopic, with documentary director Ondi Timoner making her narrative film debut, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
Mapplethorpe caused controversy with his sexually explicit photography.
He died of AIDS in 1989 at the age of 42, establishing the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation - which promotes his work and funds HIV research - before his death.
Franco previously portrayed gay beat poet Allan Ginsberg in Howl and Harvey Milk's lover Scott Smith in Milk.
He has said that he does not mind people thinking that he is gay.
There is no word yet on when Mapplethorpe will begin shooting. It has also been revealed that the project is one of 11 which has won a $15,000 (£9,758) grant from the Tribeca Film Institute's 'All Access' Programme.
Watch James Franco in the trailer for Milk below: