In our ongoing seriesModel in the Spotlight, we get up close and personal with the world's leading male models.
Fashion knows a good thing when it sees one, and David Agbodji is clearly a keeper. During his years in the industry, he's made his mark in a slew of editorials and campaigns—from Calvin Klein and D&G to Bottega Veneta and Dsquared2—while also proving his commercial appeal as a favorite over at Banana Republic and Express. The artistic Agbodji, who readily admits he decided to give modeling a try only after he saw the effect it had on women, has lately been demonstrating his talents behind the camera as well, shooting regularly for Flaunt and a number of other fashion magazines, with a distinctive vision he describes as "just do you."
Hometown: New York City
Agency: Re:Quest Model Management
How were you discovered? When I was in high school, people used to tell me to try modeling. We were in the Bronx, and Manhattan was like another country to us, but every time I came here, somebody would try to scout me, but I wasn't really interested. When I was in college, a good friend of mine had this clothing line and asked me to model in one of his fashion shows, and all the girls went mad. I only started modeling because of the girls, to be honest.
Did you expect back then that you would be modeling for so long? Hell no, I thought this was going to be a two-year thing, then I was going to get out of school and get a real job. I didn't think I was going to do this for a living. I didn't think you could make a living out of this. But I like the fact that I had that naive approach to it, that I didn't think too much about it. I feel like if I had known what I know now, I would have put a lot more pressure on myself and I would have fucked it up, so I think that naiveté helped a lot. Also, because I was so naive about it, I was interested in other things. I never planned on this as a source of income, so I was learning different skills. When I starting modeling and I started making money, I was very mad at myself because I was like, "I should've started when I was 15," but a couple of years down the line, I'm so happy I didn't. If I had started at 15, I would never have finished school and I would never have gone to college.
You grew up in Paris and then Moscow before moving to New York. Why did decide to come here? Who doesn't want to come to New York? I always did some kind of art, and what my dad used to do, instead of giving us allowance, he told us that if we wanted money, we had to draw something and sell it to him. So from a very young age, I always felt that you could actually make money from art, and I'll always thank him for that. I always felt like I was going to do some kind of art, and my parents always knew that if I was going to do art, I'd be better off in New York.
What sort of art did you decide to study in school? The one thing that I had to deal with in college was to learn not to be so influenced by other art. At the beginning, I was really into learning art history, but it's a thin line. It's important to know that stuff, to know what came before, but you can easily fall into the trap of reproducing that. Back in high school, I did more urban art, like graffiti mixed with comic-book heroes, then in college, I began doing more painting. And I hated photography when I was at school.
That's interesting, because you're doing so much photography now. How did that shift come about? I started photography when I started modeling. Whenever I was working, I was always curious about why it took all these fancy cameras and lights to get pictures that weren't always that amazing. To be honest, I kind of looked down on photography, the way painters and other artists feel that it's just not art. That's how I felt about it, but now I disagree obviously. I started out shooting my girl, and then I understood there's a lot more to it. So that's how I got into it—I was talking shit about it, then I was like, let me find out for myself.
Now that you're focusing more on photography, do you try to learn from photographers that you work with as a model? Picasso said that your style comes from your own imperfections. There's still a lot of things I don't know how to do, and that determines my style. Sometimes I'm very curious, and if I see something, I'll ask, and so far people have been happy to share. It's so much better than if I had to go to school for photography. I understand more, but I try not to reproduce what other people are doing, because I feel like we're supposed to be advancing the ideas, not just doing what's been done.
What would you be doing now if you weren't modeling? I still don't know, some kind of art, obviously. I don't think I would be shooting if I weren't modeling, because that helped me discover photography, but definitely some kind of art. Everybody that I grew up with remembers me as the artist—I was always sketching, I was punished at school for drawing and not listening—so it was always going to be art. That's the main reason why I kept modeling after school as opposed to getting a real job. I knew I didn't want a nine-to-five, I just wanted to make some cash and do my own art.
What's the best piece of advice you've ever been given? Just do your own thing. When I started shooting, I was told by everyone to pay attention to what's going on during shoots and learn from the magazines. Then I met Cliff Watts—a really good friend of mine, he's like my mentor—and he told me, "Don't look at magazines, just do you." His point was, we're all unique. Whatever you have to say, the way you say it, nobody can do that, only you can fill that void. That's what made me turn. Now I'm very experimental, I don't know what I'm going to shoot the next time. I might draw over it, it might be really simple, but it's true to how I feel. Once I heard that, it reminded me of how I felt before, and it made sense to me.
—Jonathan Shia, follow him at @JonathanShia