BILLY MONK, THE CATACOMBS, 1967
Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin for Frieze Masters, 2014
We were recently reminded of Billy Monk's remarkable photographs through a series of chance encounters. We had commissioned the South African photographer Jac de Villiers to photograph the only known Dodo egg in the world, which is on permanent loan to the East London Museum, in South Africa's Eastern Cape. In 1915, the museum's curator, Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, had inherited the egg from her great aunt Lavinia, who had received it from a sea captain who claimed to have found it in a swamp on the island of Mauritius. Two weeks before de Villier's visit to the museum, it was burgled: its entire meteorite collection, as well as some Ming crockery, was stolen during an early-morning heist. Luckily, the thieves overlooked the real treasure - the dodo egg.
But then, De Villiers is a man familiar with good luck. In 1979 he accidentally came across several folders of contact prints and negatives in a studio he rented in Cape Town. The photographs had been meticulously numbered and dated and their author turned out to be a little known nightclub bouncer called Billy Monk. In the 1960s, he had worked at the notorious Catacombs Club in Cape Town and photographed customers with his 35mm Pentax with the aim of selling the images back to them. De Villers was struck by these remarkable photographs and, with the help of David Goldblatt, he arranged an exhibition in Johannesburg in July 1982. Monk was hailed by the local press as "a modern day Toulouse-Lautrec".
Tragically, Monk never saw the show. In 1969, he had left Cape Town and begun earning a living diving for diamonds off South Africa's west coast. This is what he was doing when his exhibition opened. Two weeks later, Monk decided to hitch-hike to Johannesburg to see it. But, on the evening of 31 July, he got involved in a fight. Monk had been a professional boxer in his youth but on this occasion his opponent pulled a gun and fatally shot him in the chest. He left behind a series of photographs that do what photographs can't help doing, which is to document a moment in our history that has vanished. The Catacombs - an interracial club during the height of apartheid, in South Africa in the mid-1960s - is just such a vanished history. Monk's pictures are off-the-cuff and casual, a style familiar to a generation brought up on Instagram. However, the sense in which they seem to diminish the distance between reality and the depiction of reality is shocking. We have always been touched by their tenderness and the heroic depiction of outsiders - particularly, and unusually, the women. In the words of novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard, these rare photographs 'belong to a past in such a fundamental way, the part of our past we have put behind us, which no longer fits into this world we have created where the great, the divine, the solemn, the holy, the beautiful and the true are no longer valid entities but quite the contrary, dubious or even laughable.'