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Roberto Lopardo's Mapping series, which started in Dubai, involves spending 24 hours in an area and taking a photo every minute. Sarah Dea / The National
Roberto Lopardo's Mapping series, which started in Dubai, involves spending 24 hours in an area and taking a photo every minute. Sarah Dea / The National

In the studio with Roberto Lopardo

In the fourth part of our summer series, Anna Seaman visits Roberto Lopardo in his working space at Cuadro Fine Art Gallery, DIFC.

For a man whose artistic practice involves little more than a camera and his own two feet, Roberto Lopardo is hard to catch in the studio. Since 2009, the Italian-American has been creating the Mapping series, which involves exploring a given area on foot and taking a frame every minute over the course of 24 hours. Those given areas are usually cities; Lopardo has now completed Mapping Dubai Parts 1 and 2, Mapping Sharjah, Kuwait, Doha, Jeddah, Bahrain, Jerusalem, Istanbul, Beirut, Venice and Mapping Latitude 45.36 Longitude -123.36 that was conducted on a piece of open countryside in Yamhill County, Oregon.

The 1,440 images are then presented in storyboard formation in rows of 60 – each therefore corresponding to one hour – and the result is a rhythmic ebb and flow of colour and essence that, when viewed from a distance before scrutinising the individual frames in detail, reveal the spirit of the city in the same way as an amplifier equaliser would show the tone of a piece of music without actually hearing it.

“What I think about a lot is how the colours will work when you step away from them,” explains Lopardo. “I start a lot at sunrise, which is logical, but sometimes I start at midnight to trap the light in the middle, or midday to wrap the darkness in light. That to me is the painterly aspect of it – that the colours of the city come through in the palettes.”

We find Lopardo contemplating such nuances in the belly of Dubai International Financial Centre’s Cuadro Fine Art Gallery, where he is the gallery manager; alongside organising and curating their many exhibitions, he also occasionally finds time to peruse his own work.

However, he is the first to admit it is a rare occurrence.

“It’s strange, I’m not sure how much time I’ve spent thinking about the process. I’ve spent so much time thinking about how to get from city to city that I haven’t really thought about the fact I’ve shot 12 cities. Now I think it is about time to sit down and think about how they went.”

By the very public nature of the projects and the affinity many people feel with the end results, the Mapping series has been very successful. After the first in Dubai in 2009, the US Consulate General commissioned a second in 2011, where Lopardo walked from his home in Dubai Marina to the new consulate in Bur Dubai, and the finished product now hangs in the consulate building to engage newcomers to the city.

The third in Bahrain, in April 2011, was completed during the period of civil unrest and accompanied by Bashar Al Shroogi, the director of Cuadro. The pair needed a permission letter from the minister of culture to photograph freely and were still stopped every hour by the military.

For the Jeddah series, he also needed help from authorities to complete the project and in Jerusalem, the constant security issues and the fact that it was very cold exhausted him.

However, these particular difficulties forced him to his artistic limits, which gave him a run of 15 photographs that remain his favourite from all 12 cities.

“It was freezing, it was late at night and I had been up for 21 hours,” he recalls. “I took a cab to get over the checkpoint, the driver threw on the hot air and immediately I started to pass out.

“I have a watch on which the alarm goes off every minute and sitting in the front of this cab I would literally wake up, mechanically shoot a frame and then go back into a lull. I love that series of images because they are totally random, out of focus and you cannot see anything. There is something about the fact that I completely let go and the camera was controlling itself.”

As such, the project has moved away from Lopardo’s initial intention. It was supposed to be an exploration of the city he lived in, to take himself away from his well-trodden trail and into the areas of his immediate vicinity, which in his six years of living there he had not been to.

“It is a very personal project,” he says as he recounts his childhood memories of New York, where he explored the city by walking the streets, climbing the roofs and taking the underground trains. “I have learnt this way since I was a child.”

However, while he expected to spend great portions of the 24-hour cycle sitting and contemplating, instead he became consumed by the metronomic rhythm of the passing minutes and marched through the city in a constant urban hike. “I find it difficult to stop moving; even when I am eating,” he says.

He does not carry a map, nor does he plan a route – other than the time he was heading towards the US consulate – he only thinks about where he will start and where he will finish.

And after 12 cities, he doesn’t see himself finishing any time soon. “It could keep going and going. For me as an artist, I can’t exhaust the material,” he says, explaining that Cairo, Amman and Muscat are on the horizon.


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