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Never-before-seen portraits by Billy Monk on exhibition

This month sees online arts portal Latitudes presenting a never-before-seen selection of portraits by the late Billy Monk, South Africa’s almost mythical 1960s photographer. The UNSEEN selection is curated by custodians of the Billy Monk Collection, Gavin Furlonger and Craig Cameron-Mackintosh, and will be available on Latitudes from 15 July. 

Monk worked as a bouncer in 1960s Cape Town. Armed with a camera, he also took photographs of partygoers inside nightclubs like The Catacombs. Housing revellers of all creeds and colours, these dockside venues illustrated both forms of the word ‘underground’. His access to this cross-section of society allowed him to photograph scenes of uncensored joy, passion, and debauchery not often associated with apartheid-era South Africa.

Billy Monk photographer
Billy Monk, The Catacombs, 1 May 1968, Pigment Ink on Archival Paper, Edition of 12
Billy Monk photographer
Billy Monk, The Catacombs, 14 October 1967, Pigment Ink on Archival Paper, Edition of 12

A decade later, Paul Gordon, who had once shared a studio space with Monk, handed the meticulously labelled negatives to photographer Jac de Villiers. Intrigued by what he saw and with David Goldblatt on board too, an exhibition was staged at The Market Gallery in Johannesburg in 1982, with Monk’s blessing.
     The show was a critical success and Monk took leave from his job as a diamond diver in the north of the country’s shoreline, to attend. A pit-stop in Cape Town along the way, however, proved to be the full stop in Monk’s story. He was shot dead in a drunken argument. His photographs, though, live on and continue to give the world a rare glimpse into this period in Cape Town’s history. The story of Billy Monk and his short life, well lived, has become somewhat of a myth over the decades.

Billy Monk photographer self portrait
Billy Monk, self portrait

‘Billy Monk, a hired bouncer by night, was a magnetic, and forceful, character who managed to charm and disarm all who crossed his path no matter whether it was a man, or a woman, that caught his fancy in the moment. He was the absolute ‘opportunist’ taking full advantage of any situation and living in the moment.’

Gavin Furlonger, July 2021

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