It’s 1967 and we’re at Les Catacombs Club in Cape Town. Billy Monk is the bouncer. He’s the guy who decides who’s welcome. The Terrorism Act had just been passed, but his door policy is decidedly democratic. Billy Monk is also the photographer.
PHOTOGRAPHY – BILLY MONK
WORDS – KATE WHITE
Before and after, he’s a kreef poacher, a Woolworths model, and a Transkei drug runner. He’s gone to jail for trying – and failing to – steal a safe from OK Bazaars. He has ‘a look’. The charm of a hustler. A childhood that includes one spoken-memory of dad puking in the gutter. Three sisters. A wife named Jeanette. Always late; prone to violence. His sexual appetite is legendary: ravenous, a ladies man who – nbd – hooks up with men. There is definitely a boast here – you want to have slept with Billy Monk.
In the end he becomes a diamond diver – totally legit, above board. In the end, he is remembered as a photographer. In the end, he is the person who is shot. When he dies he knows that Jac De Villiers moved into his old studio and has found three ring-binders of negatives. Endorsed by David Goldblatt, a solo exhibition is organised for July 1982 at The Market Gallery. Billy Monk was due to attend. He does not make it to Johannesburg.
He never finds out that his photos were bought by JAG and the South African National Gallery. That Martin Parr writes about him and Phaidon, amongst many others, publishes him. That all the international papers fawn over his work. That he is referenced alongside Diane Arbus, Mary Ellen Mark and Daido Moriyama.
But he is a photographer so he does not die and the people he has captured do not die either. Here are their nights. Here is the immortalisation of liminal people, illegal people. Between 1967 and 1969, Billy Monk documented the sailors, their ladies and men, and locals who drank at two of the dodgiest bars in Cape Town’s Red Light District.
Brown, white, black, and passing-as. Male, female, more passing-as. East and West: Japanese trawlermen, American boys. Beehives, mini-skirts and no skirts. Sex workers. Interracial loving. The gays. More than three black men in one place. Jazz. Rock n Roll. Illegal booze (the club didn’t have a liquor license so Coca-Cola was the official tender, with brandy, known as Harries, sold by Billy himself). A lifestyle unchanged for over four hundred years: sailors heading dockside for food and drink, sex and love.
Under the brutality of public Apartheid, a private world. Sex, race and gender meld. See: here is lust. Genuine laughter. Happiness in just being yourself. That man has spread his legs, straddled a chair and is pointing his toes. Witness the full-face graunch, a bottle in one hand, a lady in the arms. Another lady, but with the jaw of a man and luscious lips.
Superficially speaking, Billy Monk created the documents for posterity – but not for museums or fancy houses. These so-called snapshots were sold to the patrons. Itinerants who wanted to remember that night.
But a newspaper article from 1982 points out that he opened a photographic studio in Bloem Street. He shot on a Pentax and chose Ilford PF4, his negatives and contact sheets were itemised (the bane of any photographer’s life), and he briefly tried wedding photography (apparently, this gave him ‘the horries’ which makes sense when your special skill is capturing the loose honesty of late night debauchery). There is intention in his technical choices. The film he chose overaccommodates two stops in bad light and he used a flash that shows up all the details – background, foreground and everything in between. His framing is also layered: ladies wait for patron-lovers under a sign that says A Clean Heart & Cheerful Spirit; men line up outside a toilet door that announces they are indeed Gents.
In 1979, photographer Jac De Villiers moved into the Bloem Street studio. He contacted Billy Monk and by 1982 the work was public. The original prints were 11 x 15cm, but De Villiers entrusted the developing and printing to Andrew Meintjies who chose to re-present the images at 17 x 25. He also cleaned up the quality and, between De Villiers and Meintjies, they chose visuals more aesthetically minded. They’ve said that it felt like Billy Monk didn’t really believe the show would happen.
But it did and the exhibition was an immediate success. The appeal is the honesty of the patrons. How relaxed everyone is. How happy the subjects are to be seen and appreciated by a fellow rogue. Objectively, there is a sense of the exotic, but in most of the photos, the subjects have ownership of their moment. There is pride in the poses. Billy Monk returns the trust.
In 2019’s late post-modernism of looking, we think we’re accustomed to the candid. But our current appropriation is sanitised (consider the difference between the series Pose and the documentary Paris is Burning). The pictures get looser, the night later – more empty bottles, legs wider, kissing that seems louche. Is that man doubled-over even alive? Are the women smiling for their hard-earned rands or are they legitimately having a good time. The photographer knows the answers to these questions, but his body is with the fishes.
Billy Monk was, aptly, given a sailor’s burial. On 5 August, 1982 friends and family took his body out on a boat. There was poetry, champagne and crying. The details of his murder are murky: everyone was drunk, there was a fight at a bar in Green Point, possibly over furniture. He was shot once or twice. The newspapers all wrote about it. His last words were either ‘okay, you’ve shot me, so now what?’ or ‘now you gone and killed me’. It doesn’t matter what he said: the monk who took pictures of sex workers and dodgy sailors in a venue named after European cemeteries that exhibit corpses has immortalised the dead. Billy Monk is not forgotten and neither are his people.
Watch the documentary Billy Monk “A Shot in the Dark” – Here Now !