YOU TOO: What early New York vlogger Nelson Sullivan can teach you about your own history

Nelson Sullivan was a vlogger 16 years before the word was invented.

He was a YouTuber almost a quarter century before the platform first uploaded a video.

If you’re even half interested in the history of the recorded image he is every bit as important as the Parisian Lumiere brothers who first charged an audience to see moving images.

Nelson first picked up an early video camera in 1983 to give a first person recording of the creative New York dance and arts scene. A few years before his death in 1989 he bought a lightweight Hi-8 camera which he experimented with turning on himself making him the star narrator of his day.

Watch his clip ‘Nelson Sullivan’s Rendezvous with his Brother in the East Village in 1989’ and you’re seeing a time traveller.

He addresses the camera to tell us he’s waiting for his brother at a coffee shop. Annoyed at his lateness he decides to call him. Rather than pull out a mobile phone he heads to the payphone.

Later, he decides to head to a friends’ house. So he walks round there rather than call him. But that’s what people did.

In other clips, he wanders the tatty graffiti’d streets of New York with friends that include an undiscovered Rupaul. He passes people on the street with ghetto blasters on their shoulder playing music because the ipod hadn’t been invented yet.

I don’t know New York, but I’m aware that the tatty meatpacking district of the 1980s was decades away from its current gentrified status. Yet Sullivan and his friends find beauty in what they see whether that be a view, a building, an experience, a pier or a piece of art.

Sullivan died suddenly of a heart attack aged 39 and footage shot on more than 1,000 video tapes went into storage from where they were rescued. More than 700 have been uploaded to the 5ninethanevenueproject YouTube channel.

It’s New York history, gay history, music history, tech history and plain community history.

It teaches what he analogue world was like a few years before the internet changed everything. It teaches what life was like before the mobile. It teaches how cities can change. It teaches how technology can change. It shows how the everyday should be captured because one day it’ll be the ancient past. Like this trip to a McDonalds in 1989, spending Sunday afternoon in the park or taking his Mum to the top of the World Trade Centre.

What’s also fascinating is how people respond. His artistic friends don’t bat an eyelid. Passers by often wave when they see the camera such is the novelty value.

It’s fascinating.

You can find more about Nelson Sullivan here.

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