In Memoriam: Christophe Agou

Five friends and colleagues remember a great man

Christophe Agou, the acclaimed French-American photographer, filmmaker, and artist who brilliantly documented the subways of New York and the countrysides of France with his Leicas, left us this year. He was 46.

Photo of Christophe Agou. © Jeff Ladd.

His voice was so prominent in the world of photo documentary that we want to pay homage to his work before the beginning of a new year. We want to make sure he is part of the book of life, our life, the life of documentary photographers. We want to celebrate his person one more time.

As Jamie Wellford said so simply: “Christophe was an artist that made the world a better place because he was part of it.” Below are five testimonies from Christophe’s colleagues and friends. In Memoriam.

Gus Powell, photographer

On a cold day in November, more than a decade ago, the phone rang and it was my new friend Christophe Agou. He was screaming at me.

Christophe and I had been introduced only a few months earlier through the photographer Jeff Ladd. The three of us met for a drink downtown and as we each arrived we placed our cameras on the bar. Christophe was the last to show up. Putting his Titanium M6 between my black one and Jeff’s silver M4 he said: “I guess we are all here.” It was such a memorable night. I felt as though I had found a set of true peers. People that I could agree and disagree with. These were artists that would inspire me; friends that I could laugh with all in the same moment.

With the phone to my ear I could hear that Christophe was in the street, that he was among the multitude. His screaming was both serious and giddy. It had joy and it had urgency. It was just a bit after midnight in France and the Beaujolais Nouveau had arrived in Paris. He was out there drinking it and announcing its arrival. I don’t even recall if he heard me speaking back to him, but the message of the new season’s wine’s arrival was received.

That was Christophe. He celebrated. He enjoyed the crowd. He expressed his feelings. And if you knew him you felt lucky to be near him.

I will miss this beautiful friend and artist. I will miss his humor, his questions, and his passionate diatribes that confused but still inspired. I will miss his sharp humor and the way he would look out of the side of his eye after delivering his wit. I will miss watching him sort of waddle, sending weight left and right just as much as forward, when he photographed. I will miss his passion for the moment right in front of him. I will miss his Beaujolais Nouveau.

The solace is the work that remains. Dark, joyous, deep work! Pictures that are at times almost claustrophobic in how populated they are with feelings. It is work that will age well. Photographs that will remind us of a time in New York, in France, and elsewhere, but most importantly, art that will make you feel. Savor it. Sip it slowly. This is not Beaujolais Nouveau. It’s the good stuff.

Jamie Wellford, former Newsweek photo editor

Dear Christophe,

I have been meaning to write to you about an image in your book Face of Silence that shows steam rising from a pot on a stove. I was always moved by the notion of vapor as a metaphor for beauty and feeling in a photograph, something that you could see but not hold. And this photograph so powerfully conjures this. You always captured the essence of a moment and your work from the Massif Central in France really epitomizes the depth and emotion a photograph is capable of expressing.

But you have gone, like beautiful vapor, and I can’t tell you how your visual delicacy and unyielding and always creative capacity with irony thoroughly effected my way of looking at the world. I can only say goodbye and thank you for marking time and place with an exquisite human touch. Full of mirth, talent, and kindness, the world is a better place because you were part of it.

Rest in Peace dear man.

Julien Jourdes, former Newsweek photo editor

It was 9:16 a.m. on that Tuesday morning when I received a call from Christophe Agou. As usual he was very excited, spoke fast, exaggerated everything with moderation and love. I understand well that kind of over emotional language as I am from the same family of French Pieds-Noirs living in New York. He was pitching a story to Newsweek, where I worked at the time: a small plane had apparently just cut through one of the Twin Towers and he was going downtown to document it. I immediately said yes and put him on assignment for the day. Just one day, no expenses. Everyone knows what happened after that.

As I was drinking my coffee the news made it clear that it was not a small plane but a commercial plane; and not one but two aircrafts. I immediately biked from my apartment in Brooklyn and witnessed the towers collapsing from the Brooklyn Bridge. I remember thinking “I just killed Christophe with this assignment.” I tried to call him but cell phone service was out. I managed to reach the Newsweek headquarters. Christophe showed up at the office at 5pm. It was such a relief. I looked at him and cannot forget his first sentence to me: “If Hell exists, I think I just saw it.” It was my first long-term assignment with Christophe, and the beginning of our working relationship.

A few months later we were editing together his first book, Life Below: The New York City Subway. Christophe had shot this incredible series of photos in the subway with a Leica and a 35mm 1.4. The darkness of this work is just the twin opposite of his incredible joie de vivre. In this series of pictures, Christophe did not merely reproduce what was happening before his eyes. Instead, his images seem to capture the soul of these people commuting. He used the Leica like a punching glove; getting extremely close to his subjects, yet going unnoticed.

Christophe took photos like someone devouring the most succulent dessert. He bit until nothing is left, then smiled to release his pleasure.

He was a genius at assembling pictures, objects, sculpture, words, food and friends.

love and respect from Nous York.

Yan di Meglio, director of Galerie Intervalle, Paris

I have known Christophe for only 3 years, after having been so touched by his series Face of Silence that I asked him if he would like to have an exhibition at the gallery. It’s been a short but very strong relationship, because Christophe surely belonged to another race.

We met via Skype, and the density of his personality could spread through the screen. He gave me the feeling to be speaking to a volcano, with his multiple projects going on, his determination to do what he wanted to do, and his dedication to the others.

The strength of Face of Silence precisely draws from the extraordinary intimacy he established with these old people who represented the end of an era, of a lifestyle and, ultimately, the end of life. He had become friends with most of them, kept writing them letters, and this is the reason why he did not like to qualify this series as documentary. The project was very dear to his heart, and he had been working for a year on editing a movie about the same subject when he died.

No doubt Christophe was an artist before being a photographer. The only time I met him face to face was in his apartment overlooking Central Park, in New York, and we spent a wonderful night talking mostly about art. It was for 2015 New Year’s Eve and he had insisted despite his weakness to have my wife Violaine and I for dinner at the last minute. He had prepared a feast, and his wife Niloo later told me that it had been his last proper dinner. He made us laugh, and talked about the artists he admired.

He purchased an incredible amount of masterpieces before anyone had heard about them. He had such a taste, and had no interest in labels. He had for example one piece, very raw, that I really liked. When I asked him who painted it, he answered that it had been done by a homeless person down the street, and he had insisted to buy it. That flair too, was an illustration of his rare and solid artist view.

Photographer Matthew Stuart

Christophe and I met 13 years ago. I had seen his work on the Subway Life Below and had been knocked sideways by how good it was. We were both passionate about street photography. I sent him an email saying I wanted to shake his hand and it turned out he was coming to London so we arranged to meet.

I remember that day vividly. Seeing this energetic Frenchman’s face with a big grin on it and walking with him down the Embankment to the Tate Britain. Christophe tugged on my arm with excitement about the art show we were about to see and I realised there and then that Christophe wasn’t just enthusiastic about street photography — he was enthusiastic about everything.

After that first meeting we would meet up whenever we could. I lived in London, Christophe lived in New York, we both travelled to Paris regularly, and I often went to New York. Christophe always made space to get together with me, even if he was busy. Some of the happiest moments of my life were during these meetings. We didn’t have long to have a great time in London, Paris or New York, and our energy was focused on the positive and having concentrated creative fun. We would share stories, photographs, laugh, dance, eat, drink, fall over and make merry, I can’t recall how many tables we danced on. There was nothing quite like being with Christophe in full swing — he almost became the music! It always felt as if you were in a movie — exciting, dramatic, hilarious, poetic, all those BIG words that actually make you feel like something very special was happening. Christophe loved to make great memories.

On the top of his enthusiasm and joy for life, Christophe was extremely generous and selfless. He would always take the time to look at your work, talk about your projects, your life and give you honest and valuable feedback. The conversation was never all about him, even though he was constantly creating great art; he made you feel special and important. You knew if Christophe said something, it came from his heart. No bullshit.

I recall seeing Christophe’s photography students returning from the subway after a workshop that we did together a year and a half ago. I can still see their faces, glowing red, eyes bulging, hot with sweat, big broad smiles on their faces. They had seen Life Below — they had been pushed to get closer, to feel the emotion. Christophe had taken them on one of the most memorable rides of their lives. No one can beat a train ride with Agou.

Everyone who knew Christophe will have similar stories to mine. My experience was not unique because everyone he touched was invigorated by his spirit and energy. Christophe was an inspiration, a brilliant passionate photographer, writer, sculptor, artist, friend, and human being who lived more in 45 years than most people could do in many lifetimes. We all miss him more than words could ever describe.

Love and light Christophe. X

All images: Christophe Agou.

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