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Billy Monk (born William John Monk) was a Cape Town bouncer and photographer in the early 60s- during the years of apartheid in South Africa. Known as a charming man, a womanizer, a fighter, a musician, and a reader, Billy Monk had a reputation around the city of Cape Town. Although not too much is known about his life, his legacy lives on through his photographs.
Not much is known about the early life of Billy Monk. Although he was born on January 11 it was never sure what year, and no one knew his exact age. He didn't like to speak about his childhood, although it is clear that he came from a home that was less than whole- a drunk for a father and a stepmother. His early occupations consisted of surviving in any manner he could, largely through petty crime. He was sent to jail for two years as a teenager for stealing a safe, and there learned to become a receptionist. He then moved on to smuggling- be it across the Transkei or poaching fish off the coast of Cape Town. Throughout the course of his life he held a variety of jobs- a Woolworths model, a photographers assistant, a diamond diver, a sandal shop owner, the proprietor of a vegetarian restaurant, and finally, a bouncer and photographer.
When Monk's work as a bouncer did not work out he entered the world of photography. Still working in the Catacombs, he began to make his living taking pictures of the diverse clientele in what was a rather seedy bar. He used a Pentax camera, with a 35 mm focal-length lens, a small flash and Ilford FP4 film. The bright flash easily illuminated not only the sordid underground life of the bar, but also the vivacity and variety of the people who came there. Although he stopped taking pictures in 1969, there still remains a large collection of photographs for us to enjoy today. His photographs show a variety of the underbelly of Cape Town life at the time- ranging from old men with young wives and gay couples, to midgets and mixed race relationships, he shows a side of life under apartheid that is rarely seen elsewhere.
Discovery of his work
Monk's work was discovered in 1979 by Jac de Villiers, in a studio that he had recently moved into. Not only were they already perfectly constructed by the photographer, they were also impeccably annotated with dates and names, which made curation a simple and enjoyable process. The first exhibition of Monk's work took place at the Market Gallery in Johannesburg in 1982- and although Monk could not attend the event it was subject to much critical acclaim.
Monk was working in the depth of the apartheid in South Africa- a time when the colour of your skin was indicative of where you could live, work, who you could marry, and where you could drink. The underground lifestyle of The Catacombs, where Monk worked, were a breeding ground for what we today would call dissent. However neither Monk nor his subjects considered themselves dissenters. Monk chose to take pictures originally as a way of making money, by selling them back to his clients, while his subjects were merely out for a night on the town. However the result, is that an observer looking from another time can see the subversive culture, the dark bars, and the daring of the men and women in the photographs as an outcome and a rebellion against the reign of the apartheid regime.
The off beat appearance of the photographs, strikingly black and white against a dark background, reveal a variety of clientele, and a variety of nights. Some are sloppy, some are neat and put together. Many of the women are heavily made up with short dresses, and almost all the photographs are highly sexually charged. Knowing about Monk's reputation for womanizing this is less than surprising, however it is also a window into the release that many people sought to seek from the world outside the walls of the catacomb, the world where apartheid ruled. The photographs reveal much of what was not allowed under apartheid rule- specifically a variety of same sex and mixed race couples.
Although subject to great critical acclaim and public approval, Monk was never to witness the exhibition of his own work in a gallery. No more than two weeks after the exhibition began he attempted to get a ride from Cape Town to Johannesburg to see his work- however in the process he became involved in an altercation during which a man pulled a gun. Monk was shot in the chest, and died on the evening of Saturday the 31 July 1982. He was buried at sea by his remaining family- three sisters and his wife, Jeanette. His work has been exhibited several more times after his death, and republished in a book.
- Goldblatt, David; de Villiers, Jac (2011). Billy Monk. Dewi Lewis Publishing. ISBN 978-1907893186.
- "Billy Monk: the bouncer who just kept on snapping". Telegraph.co.uk. Retrieved 25 February 2015.
- Pantall, Colin. "Magazine - Billy Monk: Night Club Photographs". Photo-eye.com. Retrieved 25 February 2015.