Nelson Sullivan

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Nelson Sullivan
Born(1948-03-15)March 15, 1948
DiedJuly 4, 1989(1989-07-04) (aged 41)
Alma materDavidson College

John Nelson Sullivan (March 15, 1948 – July 4, 1989) was an American videographer. He was ubiquitous on the New York City downtown art and club scene during the 1980s. His videos are now stored on a YouTube channel named 5ninthavenueproject.

Early life[edit]

Sullivan was born on March 15, 1948, in Kershaw, South Carolina. His family was upper-middle class, and from an early age he was given music lessons, with consideration for a career as a classical pianist. After graduating from Davidson College in North Carolina in 1970, he moved to New York, part of the post-Stonewall wave of young gay men who were then heading to either San Francisco or Manhattan. 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 over the next ten years.

In 1980, he saw a building on the corner of Gansevoort and 9th Avenue in the Meat Packing District with a rental sign on the door. Sullivan purchased the duplex and soon renovated the building to be his own salon. It also became a hotel, way-station, and halfway house for people either visiting or moving to the city. Artists, musicians, and performers dropped by at all hours to hang out, the ongoing 24-hour salon gave Sullivan the idea to begin videotaping his life. Nelson's constant companion was a Flat-Coated Retriever named Blackout.


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 a 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 Andy'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' crossdressing was to become a leitmotif of his work. That can be seen in the footage of Guy Bernotas' 1982 production of Momma Said..., entirely shot by Sullivan. In the late 1980s, Sullivan renovated a three-story former carriage house into a "factory" at 5 Ninth Ave, in New York's Meatpacking District. With a cast that included RuPaul, DJ Larry Tee, Lahoma Van Zant, Lady Bunny, Michael Musto, artist Albert Crudo.

He chronicled the rise and fall of many of his friends and peers including, Ethyl Eichelberger, John Sex, Keith Haring, Tom Rubnitz and Michael Alig.


On July 4, 1989, Sullivan died of a heart attack aged 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 last footage—filmed hours before he died—is on YouTube as part of the 5 Ninth Avenue Project.


In October 2012, New York University's Fales Library & Special Collections accepted the Nelson Sullivan Video Archive as a donation from Atlantans Dick Richards and David Goldman, and Robert Coddington of Durham, N.C. (operating collectively as the 5 Ninth Avenue Project).

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