Billy Monk's photos of 1960's Cape Town night life

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Billy Monk's photos of 1960's Cape Town night life

Post  eddie on Sat Feb 04, 2012 5:51 am

Billy Monk nightclub photos show 1960s Cape Town at play - in pictures

Billy Monk's photographs capture the edginess of a hard-partying crowd in the nightclub where he worked as a bouncer in Cape Town in the late 1960s. A new book brings together the photos of the itinerant man with a 'seedy eye' who died in a street fight as his first exhibition was shown

guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 31 January 2012 12.09 GMT

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Re: Billy Monk's photos of 1960's Cape Town night life

Post  eddie on Sat Feb 04, 2012 5:53 am


The Catacombs, 21 November 1967 Photograph: Estate of Billy Monk. Courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town and Johannesburg

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Re: Billy Monk's photos of 1960's Cape Town night life

Post  eddie on Sat Feb 04, 2012 5:56 am


The Catacombs, 1967 Photograph: Estate of Billy Monk. Courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town and Johannesburg

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Re: Billy Monk's photos of 1960's Cape Town night life

Post  eddie on Sat Feb 04, 2012 5:59 am


The Catacombs, 1968 Photograph: Estate of Billy Monk. Courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town and Johannesburg

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Re: Billy Monk's photos of 1960's Cape Town night life

Post  eddie on Sat Feb 04, 2012 6:03 am


The Catacombs, 16 October 1967 Photograph: Estate of Billy Monk. Courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town and Johannesburg

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Re: Billy Monk's photos of 1960's Cape Town night life

Post  eddie on Sat Feb 04, 2012 6:06 am


The Catacombs, 5 February 1968 Photograph: Estate of Billy Monk. Courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town and Johannesburg

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Re: Billy Monk's photos of 1960's Cape Town night life

Post  eddie on Sat Feb 04, 2012 6:09 am


The Catacombs, October 1968 Photograph: Estate of Billy Monk. Courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town and Johannesburg

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Re: Billy Monk's photos of 1960's Cape Town night life

Post  eddie on Sat Feb 04, 2012 6:13 am


The Balalaika, December 1969 Photograph: Estate of Billy Monk. Courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town and Johannesburg

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Re: Billy Monk's photos of 1960's Cape Town night life

Post  eddie on Sat Feb 04, 2012 6:18 am

Billy Monk's photos: an epitaph to a life lived on the edge

New book of photographs taken over two years in a seedy Cape Town nightclub provide a glimpse into a little-seen 60s bohemian demi-monde

Sean O'Hagan

guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 31 January 2012 12.59 GMT


Billy Monk, who worked as a bouncer in the Catacombs nightclub 'had an eye for the revealing, the intimate as well as the brazen'. Photograph: Billy Monk/estate of Billy Monk/ Stevenson, Cape Town and Johannesburg

Billy Monk was known as many things in his short life: a safecracker, a jailbird, a Woolworths model, a crayfish poacher, a bouncer and, almost by accident, a photographer. The last two jobs – though he never considered photography to be a job – were linked. For just two years, 1967 to 1969, Monk took photographs in a sleazy nightclub in Cape Town called the Catacombs, where he worked as, in the words of the owner, "rather a bad bouncer". The results have finally been gathered in a book called simply Billy Monk.


Billy Monk
by Billy Monk

They provide an extraordinarily evocative glimpse of Cape Town's little-seen late 60s bohemian demi-monde. Another South African photographer, Jack de Villiers, found Monk's photographs in a studio in Cape Town in 1979, "the contact sheets meticulously numbered and dated". An exhibition of the work was opened by the great David Goldblatt in Johannesburg's Market Gallery in July 1982, but Billy Monk did not attend. He was diving for diamonds off the Port Nolloth coast. The show was critically acclaimed but the itinerant Monk never got to read the reviews nor see the show: he was shot in the chest at close range in a street fight just two weeks after it opened. In November of the same year, Lin Sampson wrote a wonderfully descriptive feature on Monk's short, fast life for the South African Sunday Times magazine, which has been reprinted in the book:

"He died on Saturday evening in a house with turquoise-blue walls and a bar with a glitter top that had lost its shine from too many elbows sliding along it … A girl told me what had happened … Monk died protecting his friend Lionel in a tacky argument over moving furniture … Before he fell to the ground, he stood there helpless and plunging, his arms spread out in shock and pleading. 'Now you've gone 'n' killed me,' he said."

Monk was buried at sea from a rickety boat packed with, as Sampson memorably puts it:

"Musicians and artists and people who'd tried anything … pimps and bums and nightclub owners and drunks and people who had done time and would probably do time again."

These photographs are, in a very real way, an epitaph to a life lived on the edge of society by a guy with a broken nose, charm to burn, and a life that wavered constantly between the surprisingly sweet and the doggedly self-destructive. His friends remembered him "as a man who could change a baby's nappy and swing a powerful left hook". He could also, as these images show, take a great photograph – over and over again. None of the pictures in the book are cropped. They were taken usually in the small hours with a Pentax 35mm camera with a small flash. The graininess of the Ilford FP4 film he used gives the photographs their rawness and their often brutal intimacy.

De Villiers dubs Monk "the seedy eye of the 1960s", but he was more than that. He had an eye for the revealing, the intimate as well as the brazen, and he often caught both in the same instant. A bleached-blonde woman in a white trouser suit, holding a bottle of brandy in each hand, shouts or sings across the room, while beside her a sad-looking man sits in quiet contemplation. Another woman, a love bite visible on her neck, gazes lovingly at the bottles of brandy and coke on an adjacent table, while her escort slumbers blissfully on her shoulder. Bottles of brandy and coke are a constant in his photographs, as are short dresses, cheap suits and comatose customers. Monk's relentlessly intimate reportage often captures the edginess of the hard-drinking life: the steely-eyed gaze of a punter who resents his camera's intrusion, the defiant stare of a woman baring her breasts for the punters – and Monk's camera.

This is a glimpse here, too, of another South Africa, an underground scene in which the taboo of inter-racial sex is flaunted. Ultimately, though, Monk's brilliant snapshot aesthetic adds up to a portrait of wild people having a wild – though not always a good – time. His job, and his reputation as a bruiser, gave Monk the freedom to poke his camera where he wanted, but his eye for the revealing moment was extraordinary. In a short foreword, Goldblatt notes: "Monk's non-judgmental, even cool-eyed awareness of the photographic possibilities of the bizarre pervades the work, and yet this awareness is never denigratingly exploitative."

In his almost accidental art, as in his life, Billy Monk walked the line. His photographs are a testimony to a gift he certainly knew he had, but would not – or could not – refine, such was his impatience with anything approaching conformity. Once, while working at the Catacombs, he told a friend: "You'll see – I'll make it in photography. They'll be talking about my photographs long after I'm gone." He was right about that.

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