As a documentary filmmaker, I’m always acutely aware of the footage our community doesn’t have. Until the late 90s, we lived our lives largely outside the frame.
That’s why the Nelson Sullivan tapes – a vast collection of VHS and 8mm documenting gay New York in the 80s – are so exciting. Nelson, a staple of the downtown scene, was nicknamed in equal parts affection and annoyance ‘the Video Vampire’. He was rarely without his camera, whether it was Wigstock, Coney Island, Danceteria or brunch. Some of his friends went on to mainstream fame or tabloid infamy. Others passed (or passed away) into obscurity. In all, he sucked in almost 2000 hours of backstage diatribes, drug-induced breakdowns, hospital visits and dog walks.
Nelson died of a heart attack in 1989, but his archive of material of his friends and their lives – including an embryonic RuPaul (above, after go-going at the Pyramid Club), Michael Musto and Keith Haring, the chimerical world of the Limelight, and the grubby streets around his apartment at 5 Ninth Avenue – shows just how extraordinary and freeing life outside the frame could be.
Nelson may have sometimes drained Downtown’s patience, but his video vampirism also gave his subjects eternal life.