TOKYO — Some of the most valuable historical records ever are those that never set out to answer posterity’s call but that, however unwittingly, end up bearing indelible witness to particular events or to broader moments in time.
The enigmatic jack-of-all-trades Billy Monk, who was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1937 and was shot to death in Cape Town in 1982, was one such unlikely chronicler of his age. A self-taught photographer, in the late 1960s Monk worked as a bouncer at The Catacombs, a seedy Cape Town nightclub whose multiracial, pansexual denizens became his subjects.
Now, Billy Monk: Defiance and Decadence Under Apartheid, an exhibition of 20 gelatin silver prints made from Monk’s original black-and-white negatives, which is on view at The Container, in Tokyo’s Nakameguro district, offers compelling evidence that Monk’s flash-lit snaps of sailors, prostitutes, transvestites, dock workers, musicians, and young people out for booze-filled, lust-driven nights on the town, which he shot on fine-grain film with a standard, 35mm lens, have begun to earn a place alongside the iconic images of eccentrics and demimonde figures of such noted modern photographers as Brassaï, Frank Horvat, Diane Arbus, Nan Goldin, and Nobuyoshi Araki.
Many of the details of Monk’s life remain unknown. After his death, the South African journalist Lin Sampson pieced together parts of it in an article published in the magazine of the Johannesburg-based newspaper, the Sunday Times; recalling that Monk’s sisters did not “like talking about his childhood,” she wrote, “They say that if Billy had wanted anyone to know, he would have told.”
Sampson noted that Monk’s associates had described him as “a small-time crook [who] would do anything to survive.” Once, as a teenager, Monk and two accomplices tried to pick the safe in a well-known store, only to find that they could not open it, so they carried the heavy object out of the building, where they were arrested by waiting policemen. Later, in prison, Monk reportedly ran a racket, selling fellow inmates cigarettes and condensed milk that had been brought in by weekend visitors. As one of his pals put it, “Billy Monk was always looking for an edge.”
Rugged, blonde, and handsome, he found an edge — and lived on it — at the Catacombs, a nightspot that attracted sailors from China, Britain, and elsewhere; gays, lesbians, and gender-bending cross-dressers; members of South Africa’s oppressed underclasses; and randy boys and girls of all persuasions. Jazz ensembles and rock bands provided the soundtrack for their illegal fraternizing — such mixing of the races was strictly prohibited under South Africa’s apartheid laws — on the dance floor and over endless rounds of beer, whiskey, and Coke.
Monk shot hundreds of photographs, which he processed and printed in a photographer friend’s darkroom and sold to their respective subjects to earn extra income.
In Billy Monk: Shot in the Dark, a short, as-yet-unreleased film directed by Craig Cameron-Mackintosh, the late South African photographer David Goldblatt (1930-2018) recalls that The Catacombs “was a dark, dismal place that stank of piss and beer and brandy.” However, Monk’s charisma and “enormous charm” were evident to regulars who “learned to trust him” and allowed him to photograph them in their most intimately inelegant moments — whether cavorting on the dance floor, or lying face-down across chairs, or slumped against walls in alcohol-soaked stupors.
Monk’s pictures are simultaneously voyeuristic and actively engaged in their subjects’ lives. In one, two white nightclubbers — a transvestite with troweled-on makeup and sharply painted eyebrows and a man in a knit shirt and a suit — brandish cigarettes and half-filled glasses as they look unflinchingly into the camera’s lens, the latter sitting on the former’s lap; in another, from 1968, two young Asian men dance to the rhythms of the Zhivagos, a “colored” (mixed-race) band on a stage in the background, while in a third, from the same year, a chunky white man in shorts, knee socks, an open-neck shirt, and sports jacket straddles a chair, facing the camera with a peculiar, come-hither look whose coquettish air belies his size and tough-guy build.
Elsewhere, other “vile bodies,” as the British novelist Evelyn Waugh put it several decades earlier, describing another decadent set — young members of London society after World War I — sink into the bosoms of beehive-coiffed femmes fatales, grab the band’s microphone, smooch in smoky corners, or fade into each other’s arms as they give in to the undertow of oceans of booze in the night.
Monk’s work is all atmosphere and attitude, irresistibly so; his pictures are filled with the sweat, smells of smoke and beer, and bounce of jazz and pop that filled The Catacombs as these 24-hour party people packed all their restlessness and desire into a single night’s romp.
Cameron-Mackintosh, the director of Billy Monk: Shot in the Dark, is a South African filmmaker and artist who has become a co-director, along with the photographer Gavin Furlonger, of the Billy Monk Collection, an organization that preserves and promotes its namesake’s oeuvre. In Cameron-Mackintosh’s short film, Damon Monk, the photographer’s son, recalls that his father had worked as a traffic cop, railwayman, poacher of crayfish, and, in the 1970s, after leaving the nightclub scene, owner-operator of a shop in Cape Town that sold handmade leather goods. Later, he became a diamond diver, a deep-sea occupation involving exactly what its name describes.
In the late 1970s, after the studio where Monk had printed his photographs was vacated by his friend, its new occupant, the photographer Jac de Villiers, discovered a trove of images — several folders of black-and-white negatives — Monk had left behind. De Villiers and a colleague, Andrew Meintjies, contacted Monk, printed some of his photos, and, in 1982, arranged for a first-ever exhibition at a gallery in Johannesburg.
On his way to see that show shortly after it had opened, Monk fell into an altercation in Cape Town concerning the moving of some pieces of furniture, in which a friend of his was stabbed. During the fracas, one of its participants pulled out a gun and shot Monk twice. Legend has it that, after the second shot was fired, he told his assailant, “Now you’ve gone and killed me,” a line that became the title of Sampson’s 1982 Sunday Times Magazine article. He never saw the exhibition.
Monk was buried at sea in a ceremony attended by his wife, daughter, son, and other relatives. The friend who had been stabbed in the encounter that took Monk’s life was there, along with The Catacombs’ former owner, and, as Sampson recalled in her magazine piece, “a woman with long red nails who worked in an advertising agency, […] musicians and artists and people who’d tried everything,” and “pimps and bums and nightclub owners and drunks and people who had done time and would probably do time again.”
Several years after Monk’s death, De Villers told a South African art magazine, “I think [Billy] was a documentary photographer without the ideals of a documentary photographer.” He added that Monk had ended up producing a record of a time and place “by default,” only because he had been snapping photos to make some extra money.
Still, De Villiers added, Monk “was very disciplined” about it, as the neat filing system of his later-discovered negatives suggested. Separately, in an article he wrote in 1991 for an Afrikaans newspaper in South Africa, De Villiers noted that Monk had stopped shooting photos in 1969, because he saw that Polaroid film was coming into fashion for so-called social photography and he did not like it.
Monk’s work has been shown a few times in South Africa and, recently, a selection of his photographs was presented at Hive Spring, a co-working space in Hong Kong. The current exhibition in Japan begins to situate it in the broader context of thematically transgressive and sometimes technically daring modern and contemporary photography that prize the spontaneous and the rough-edged over the studiously composed and fastidiously executed (despite the high quality of the South African artist’s posthumously produced prints).
Who was Billy Monk? The photos he created offer a hint of his personality and outlook, and of the gusto with which he lived in his world. As Sampson, reading from her 1982 magazine article in Cameron-Mackintosh’s film, observes, “Billy Monk was the outsider, the rough diamond, the primitive, the man who gave it to you straight.”
Billy Monk: Defiance and Decadence Under Apartheid continues at the Container (1F Hills Daikanyama, 1-8-30 Kami-Meguro, Meguro-ku, Tokyo, Japan) through January 6, 2020.
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