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photo-eye Book Reviews: Billy Monk: Night Club Photographs

Billy Monk: Night Club Photographs. By Billy Monk.
Published by Dewi Lewis, 2012.
Billy Monk: Night Club Photographs
Reviewed by Colin Pantall
Billy Monk Billy Monk: Night Club Photographs
Photographs by Billy Monk. Foreword by David Goldblatt.
Dewi Lewis, 2012. Hardbound. 96 pp., 47 duotone illustrations, 11x9-1/2".

"Billy was a crook... he would do anything to survive and he wasn't even a good bouncer. A good bouncer doesn't need to half-kill." Add photographer to the professions of crook and bouncer and you get an idea of where the work of Billy Monk is coming from.

Billy Monk worked in the Catacombs club in Cape Town, South Africa. It was a dive, a loose-living place where the strict racial and sexual divisions of the world above ground no longer held sway. He took pictures to make money, to sell to the people he photographed.

And what people. Billy Monk's photographic years were the 1960s. Miniskirts, boots, ski-pants and beehives are the fashions, the Apartheid era Immorality Act the canvas. Gangsters, pimps and prostitutes mix with society girls, lesbians and sailors and the drink of choice is brandy and coke.

Billy Monk, by Billy Monk. Published by Dewi Lewis, 2012.
It's hard to work out where to start with Billy Monk. It's a book of short stories, secret lives, chance encounters and another brandy to keep things sweet until everything falls apart and you collapse into the table. In one picture a man and two women look at the camera. The man is on the left. He's holding a cigarette and saying something, the woman in the middle stares directly at the camera while the woman on the right leans under the table, mischief in her eyes. She, or he, is up to something. They're all up to something but what that is we’ll never know. Everything is too off-kilter to know anything, but in Billy Monk’s world that’s the way it should be.

Billy Monk, by Billy Monk. Published by Dewi Lewis, 2012.
Another picture shows two women lifting their shirts as two Asian men look on. One leers down at a woman's breasts, the other smiles serenely at the camera, his fingers reaching gently to her trousered crotch.

An Arab man appears with his glamorous partner. He's all black-rimmed glasses, trimmed moustache and gloved hands, she's bright eyes and big hands. Another picture shows two bearded gentleman of Afrikaner appearance locked in a dance, the Catacombs the place where this other life can take place.

Billy Monk, by Billy Monk. Published by Dewi Lewis, 2012.
Billy Monk died in 1979, killed by a .22 bullet in a petty row over furniture. Two weeks earlier his pictures had been exhibited in Johannesburg to acclaim. But Billy Monk never got to see them. He never got to see this book either. But you can, and imagine the lives of the people he used to photograph, imagine what went on underground and what went on overground when the people he photographed got back to their lives on the streets, on the ships and, most fascinating of all, in the suburbs.—COLIN PANTALL

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COLIN PANTALL is a UK-based writer, photographer and teacher - he is currently a visiting lecturer in Documentary Photography at the University of Wales. His work has been exhibited in London, Amsterdam, Manchester and Rome and his Sofa Portraits will be published as a handmade book early next year. Further thoughts of Colin Pantall can be found on his blog, which was listed as one of’s favourites earlier this year.