Roberto Lopardo’s Mapping series involves photographing a city on foot every minute during a given period, which results in stunning images that are a visual delight and highlight the chosen city at its vivid best.

Roberto Lopardo is an Italian-American artist who is renowned for creating the Mapping series, which involves exploring a given area on foot and taking a frame every minute over the course of 24 hours. These images are presented in a storyboard formation and reveal the spirit of the photographed city. He is also the Director of Cuadro Gallery, Dubai. We speak to him to find out what inspires him to capture these cities and about the constant evolution of the art market.

Q. Can you tell us a little about yourself—where did you grow up and how instrumental were your surroundings in choosing your career path?

A. I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, in a neighborhood that could only best be described as a potpourri of nationalities, religions, races, and economic classes. My friends were always different than me and I loved this. In general, Brooklyn is a place that is highly unpredictable. People are making life up as they go. There are no set ways to see anything. All is debatable; everything is up for grabs. I grew up with this open and experimental attitude towards all things different than me. I grew up questioning the absolute validity of everything. These early experiences and lessons of life definitely set the ground rules for the manner in which I live my life today.

Roberto Lopardo
Roberto Lopardo

My first inclination in college was to study Politics and Philosophy. These two areas of study seemed best suited to quench my thirst for the pursuit of justice and the love of logic. After completing my degree from Whitman College, I traveled to Taipei, Taiwan, where I spent a year experiencing exotic tastes, sounds, and sights while desperately trying to improve my Mandarin. I struggled mightily attempting to communicate with the locals, as they for the most part spoke no English. My mom had bought me an incredible camera as a graduation present and it was with this manual film camera that I began to find a new form of communicating. I began taking thousands of photos in hopes that I could piece together a reasonable account of what I was experiencing so I could share it with others.

Q. Can you tell us your journey with the Mapping series. What inspired you to come up with the concept? 

A. Right after I left Taiwan, I spent a few years living in a tiny town on the Navajo Reservation deep in the heart of the Southwest of the United States. It was a magical place with wild horses, deep slot canyons, haunted buttes, forge stick hogans, medicine men, peyote teepees, and wild coyotes. It is here that I took courses in photography and began to process and develop my own film and spent significant time in the darkroom creating black and white fine art prints. It was a glorious experience and it led me to the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) for a Masters Degree in Photography. After, RISD I was living in Los Angeles when I received a mysterious phone call in the middle of the night from a head hunter in Washington DC asking me if I wanted to teach at the American University of Dubai (AUD).

Fast forward to a very late night, several years later, sitting behind a desk, now as the Chair of the Visual Communication Department at AUD. I’m sitting and staring at the wall and thinking ‘what am I doing here?’ I had lived in Dubai for a long time and I realised that I had never really walked through the city. Dubai is mostly seen at the speed of 120 kilometres per hour from Sheik Zayed Road. I decided to change that immediately. A few days later, impossibly early in the morning, I packed a few things into a knapsack and a friend of mine drove me to a neighbourhood I had never been in near the Dubai-Sharjah border and left me there. I walked. And walked. And walked. And then for fun, walked some more. 24 hours later I hailed a cab and took it back home, falling asleep peacefully for the first time in many, many moons with a smile on my face.

Q. Could you tell us about one of your most memorable experiences while filming the Mapping series in different cities?

A. I had been stumbling about deep in the heart of Kuwait City late in the afternoon. It was hot and I was tired. There were very few sane people about; mostly people were taking a nice peaceful siesta in a cool place. I crossed paths with one fairly old gentleman. He must have been in his late seventies. When he saw me turn the corner, his face lit up and he put his hands in the air and began to shout, ‘Welcome! Welcome!’ Welcome!’ I was taken aback at such a warm-hearted reaction to my presence on this dusty old road. And he literally ran up to me and grabbed my hand with a vice like grip and looked unflinchingly into my eyes. I was surprised by his strength, his quickness, and the intelligent sharpness of his glance.
He looked me over and said, ‘Do you work out? You don’t look like you work out. Here grab my hand. See? You don’t have a very strong grip.’ I thought he’s right, I don’t work out. This man is seventy years old and if I upset him, he might knock me out cold. Note to self: perhaps you should start working out. He told me that every morning at sunrise he takes out his rowboat and fishes for several hours. While on his boat he practices calisthenics and gives praise to Allah for all his blessings in this life. I listened and watched him intently. Often times, I cross paths with people who try too hard for whatever reason to boast about their lives. But this man was genuine. Not a disingenuous bone in his body. He was content with his life. I like to think of this stranger once in awhile, recalling his alert eyes, mischievous smile, and positive energy.

Q. You photographed Dubai in 2009 and 2011. What does this city stand for you and how was it exploring the city by foot for Part II?

A. I was preparing to leave New York after having spent the summer there and my brother-in-law said, ‘Are you excited to go back home?’ How strange I thought—Dubai as home, for me. I guess Dubai is as much a place for me to call home as any other. I like Dubai. I like its ambition. I like its gusto for life. Dubai doesn’t seem set in its ways, yet, and I appreciate that raw unfulfilled energy.
I was commissioned by the US Consulate as part of their Art in Embassies Programme to create a second Mapping Dubai. The Consulate was celebrating 40 years of strong official ties and relations with the UAE and decided that my Mapping Dubai project, which is now housed permanently in the new US Consulate on the Dubai Creek, would be a way to honor those relations.
Mapping Dubai (Part II) was an incredible experience. The project started at my home in Media City and ended at the new Consulate on the Dubai Creek. It is amazing to me how different this experience was from the first one. It is important to say that I never know what a Mapping will look like in advance. I don’t have a set route. I do not tick boxes off a list of places I must see. I don’t have a schedule of where I should be at any given moment. It is truly an organic experience. The city and its inhabitants, the traffic, the odd experiences that raise up from nowhere, the direction of the wind, all push and pull me in various directions. It is like I am set adrift in an urban ocean. The cities’ current takes me up and sends me off in the only manner it knows how to.

Q. Could you tell us about your role as the Director of Cuadro Gallery? How has the experience been?

A. I have loved my time at Cuadro. Cuadro is the vision of Fatima, Bashar, and Alaa Al Shroogi. Their hope is to create a truly viable and sustainable art centre that celebrates art and encourages art production in Dubai. It is a one-of-a-kind place in this city. Not only does Cuadro set trends in the regional art market through it impeccable curatorial selections, but it also supports artist residencies and community educational initiatives. Since I have been there, my goal has been to support and strengthen these various initiatives.
It has been an interesting learning experience for me to work on the commercial side of the art world. Before Cuadro, my time was spent in academia (either studying or teaching art practices, theory, and history) or in studio as an artist working on my own practices. Cuadro has definitely opened my eyes to the other side of the art world, namely, the financial instruments that work behind the scenes to make art production and cultural output possible. Without places like Cuadro, artists could not support their practices and therefore they could not survive. In a young emerging city like Dubai where private art grants, government grants, etc are rarely available, it falls on the shoulders of private art galleries to fill in the gaps and provide artists with a viable future.

Q. What are your future plans? Are you planning to visit more cities as part of the Mapping series? If so which ones and why?

A. I was just awarded a New York University (NYU) Fellowship opportunity and I am very excited about this. I will be using this fellowship opportunity to spend some time in Abu Dhabi researching and working with NYU students to create a new Mapping Abu Dhabi project. This project excites me because it may take on a new format. I can’t let the cat out of the bag as of yet as it is all top secret, hush-hush type stuff. But suffice to say, that there may be a new approach that will be married with my current approach to create a new Mapping experience.
My rather large and quite undefined mandate at this point is to try and map as many Arab cities as possible. This list of course is debatable and quite loose in its construction. Suffice to say that I have very fixed plans to create a Mapping Amman, Cairo, and Muscat in 2014. I would absolutely also love to Map Baghdad, Damascus, and Sana’a but unfortunately present conditions do not allow it. I am hopeful that sometime in the future things will change in these regards. I also have yet to explore some of the prominent Arab cities in Northern Africa and I have my mind set on Mapping these as well.