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John Nelson Sullivan (March 15, 1948 – July 4, 1989) was an American videographer who was ubiquitous on Lower Manhattan's art and club scenes during the 1980s. His videos, which chronicle various events throughout that decade, are now regarded as a form of pre-Internet vlogging. The videos have steadily gained online popularity since 2008, when New York University's 5 Ninth Avenue Project began digitizing and uploading them to YouTube.
John Nelson Sullivan
March 15, 1948
Kershaw, South Carolina, U.S.
|Died||July 4, 1989 (aged 41)|
New York City, U.S.
John Nelson Sullivan was born into an upper-middle class family in Kershaw, South Carolina, on March 15, 1948. From an early age, he was given music lessons with consideration for a career as a classical pianist. In 1970, he graduated from Davidson College in Davidson, North Carolina, and moved to New York City's Manhattan borough as part of the post-Stonewall wave of young gay men who were then heading to either Manhattan or San Francisco. He rented a studio apartment in the West Village and soon made a decision to pursue a career as a composer. By day, Sullivan worked at Joseph Patelson Music House, the classical music store behind Carnegie Hall. He moved from apartment to apartment throughout the 1970s. In 1980, he saw a building on the corner of Gansevoort and Ninth Avenue in the Meatpacking District with a rental sign on the door. He purchased the duplex and renovated the building to be his own salon; it also became a hotel and halfway house for people visiting or moving to New York. Artists, musicians, and other artistic types dropped by at all hours to hang out, with the 24-hour salon eventually giving Sullivan the idea to begin videotaping his life.
In the early 1980s, Sullivan began to make use of inexpensive handheld video cameras then coming on the market. Using first a VHS-loading camera and later upgrading to an 8mm video camera, he shot over 1,900 hours of tape over a period of seven years, filming himself and his friends in Manhattan's downtown life. He sought to tape all of New York's citizens, including its outcasts. He taped anything and everything that interested him—performances in bars and clubs, house parties, gallery openings, park and street festivals, late-night ruminations of his friends, conversations with taxi drivers, sunset walks with his dog on the west side piers, and a variety of behavior on the part of people he met on the streets of New York City. As well as a frequenter of the galleries, clubs, and bars of the Lower East Side and Greenwich Village, Sullivan was on the periphery of the Warhol crowd's later incarnations, headquartered further north at 17th and Broadway, and at Max's Kansas City on Park Avenue South. He counted among his friends a variety of that scene's characters, such as Warhol's young friend Benjamin Liu, singer Joey Arias, fashion designer Alexis Del Lago, and actress Sylvia Miles. All of these, with the exception of Miles, were drag queens. Sullivan's films of his friends' cross-dressing was to become a leitmotif of his work. It can be seen in the footage of Guy Bernotas' 1982 production of Momma Said... which was shot by Sullivan. In the late 1980s, Sullivan renovated a three-story former carriage house into a "factory" at 5 Ninth Ave in the Meatpacking District. He chronicled the trials and tribulations of many of his famous friends and peers, including RuPaul, Larry Tee, Lady Bunny, Michael Musto, Ethyl Eichelberger, John Sex, Keith Haring, Tom Rubnitz, and Michael Alig.
On July 4, 1989, Sullivan died of a heart attack at the age of 41. He had quit his full-time job just three days prior to his death in order to produce his own cable television show of his footage. His videos, which chronicle various events of the 1980s, are now regarded as a form of pre-Internet vlogging. The videos have steadily gained online popularity since 2008, when New York University's 5 Ninth Avenue Project began digitizing and uploading them to YouTube. His final video, filmed just hours before he died, was added to the channel in March 2015; it shows him and his friend Bill Moye walking along the pier with his dog, a Flat-Coated Retriever named Blackout who was his constant companion, before attending a cookout with friends. The final moments of the video show Sullivan playing with Blackout at the cookout and laughing. After his death, friends including RuPaul and Larry Tee took turns looking after Blackout for him.
- Colucci, Emily (July 7, 2014). "Remembering New York's Downtown Documentarian Nelson Sullivan". Vice. Retrieved May 2, 2020.
- Hotel Chelsea comment
- About Nelson Sullivan - artfilm.ch
- NYU Fales Library and Special Collections Hosts a Panel Discussion: Nelson Sullivan: Vlogging in the 80s