Late photographer’s unseen photographs are being released

Latitudes is releasing 10 portraits from the archives of Billy Monk’s captivating South African 1960’s portside club scene opus this week.

Unless you attended his 1982 exhibition at The Market Theatre or are an art insider, Billy Monk came into the realm of the broader art-loving public just recently. Having viewed his work ourselves at the 2019 Turbine Art Fair, we can confirm that the response was sensational – opening the door onto never-before-seen glimpses of life from the enigmatic sharpshooter. 

Intriguing and magnetizing, Billy’s black and white shots of young men and women clubbing, drinking, scoring, fighting and living a life on the edge of society offer a glimpse into the 1960’s underground of Cape Town, at a time when the country was in a state of immense political turmoil and scenes of unrest dominated mainstream media.

Now, 10 unseen works from his relatively small archive are being released for the first time exclusively onto Latitudes, preceded by a webinar given by the collection’s curators and custodians Gavin Furlonger and Craig Cameron-Mackintosh. “The ten never-before-seen photographs in Unseen, while clearly showcasing Billy Monk’s stark, graphic and effortless style, offer a glimpse of quieter, more intimate scenes. All ten are composed in portrait format and in a different sense of the word, act as portraits, more so than many of the classic Monk images that fans will know. They depict mostly solitary subjects or pairs in endearing moments, which belie the grubby and chaotic surroundings Monk finds them in,” Craig told us.

Labelled by the journalist Lin Sampson as being “the right man at the right time”, Billy’s proximity to the action and the trust which he had developed with his subjects is evident in the raw honesty of his shots. Having worked a multitude of jobs to make ends meet such as being a traffic cop, a diamond diver and a bouncer at clubs like The Catacombs, it was the latter that gave him the opportunity to snap some of the most intimate scenes of what was happening below the surface of turbulent political unrest, as youngsters of all races crossed racial, sexual, economic and class divides and let their hair down with complete abandon.

Sexual ambivalence, burglary, shady dealings and more are part of the web of unconfirmed tales that surround Billy’s short life. His untimely death by gunshot in an argument in 1982 came briefly before he was due to see his own exhibition and his reputation as an artist take off. The exact circumstances surrounding the argument that led to his being shot are also unsubstantiated. All of this builds up the air of mystery that surrounds Billy’s life and career.

Those keen to get their hands on one of Billy’s 10 Unseen works will be able to choose from two dimensions and 12 editions of each. The images will be released on 15 July in the Latitudes Viewing Room

Register for the not-to-be-missed virtual, facilitated by arts journalist, Sean O’Toole, in which you can meet curators Gavin Furlonger and Craig Cameron-Mackintosh on 14 July at 6pm here

Words: Mila Crewe-Brown
Production: Mila Crewe-Brown and Martin Jacobs
Images: Courtesy of The Billy Monk Collection and Latitudes. All taken at The Catacombs, 1967 and 1968.