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David Elliot – I used to believe that I could be the next Larry Bird

Words: Good Sport

Images: David Elliot

Photographer David Elliot who is based in San Francisco’s has a new body of work titled ‘I used to believe that I could be the next Larry Bird’. It is about coming to terms with your own idea of yourself and discovering the reality of who you are. David says “for me it’s about when you’re perceived potential meets with the reality of who you are. It’s about failure, and how long you’re willing to hold onto your dreams and the idea of who you believe you are and what you believe you’re capable of.”

A catalyst for the work began after David had left Chicago after spending seven years working there as a photographer. “I wasn’t really succeeding in the way I had hoped for or the way I thought I should be, so I decided to go back to Kansas City to figure out what next.” Recalling the feelings of failure and not living up to potential he saw in other peers succeeding in art/photography and thought he should be ‘there’ too. Being back in Kansas he was bought back to memories of running cross country, it sparked a realisation that there was a lot of really talented people who were gonna “kick my ass”. “I was a good runner but I was never going to be in the Olympics” David started to revisit that time, looking at photos of himself running and noticing the emotions in his face that he could relate to later in life. Defeat, exhaustion, determination, pain and struggle. Realising he had been in this position before – Cross Country was a perfect analogy and metaphor to how he was feeling in his current stage of life.

The body of work although centred around youthful cross country runners is more a backdrop and setting to a larger theme. “I’m really looking for that struggle, determination, self realisation, failure and pain. I’m also interested in youth and this time in our lives that are so rich with discovery. I hope that we are always learning and discovering throughout our lives but this early time of our lives is usually rich with learning and discovery and lends itself well to talking about all these topics.”

There is an interesting segue and synergy between youth and sport, most people can relate to it to a certain degree, whether positive or negative. David recalls youth spent looking up to musicians and a brief time in his youth where he thought he could be a professional runner. He mentions the work has a lot to do with the moment you realise your not those people. “Most people will not grow up to be their idols”. The title of the work came when David was in Kansas City. “I was getting into basketball with my stepdad and sort of fell in love with Larry Bird. He is so incredible and has so much hustle, he never looks great doing what he does but he always seems to find a way”. Watching his games gave a sense of hope, hope that if you aren’t some sort of phenom or insanely gifted savant you can still be great. The irony is that Larry Bird was a phenom in his own way – “Now I’m hoping to be the next Steve Buscemi.”

Alongside this synergy between youth and sport is also the innocence of youth, especially in more rural or suburban areas compared to denser populated city centres. Davids series of work doesn’t feel like the subjects are conscious of his presence and seem to maintain a focus on themselves in the act of running and their peers around them. “Anyone who has ever ran a cross country race knows that about 3 miles in you start to shut everything else out but the course, your body and the other runners out there – you get lost in the moment and most of the kids let their guards down.” Thinking back to it David says it was a great setting to photograph. It’s not often you get to see kids with their guards down, they’re usually concerned with how they look or are being perceived — a rare glimpse. “I look like one of the kids uncles out there so I think people just thought I was the photo nerd uncle, which is actually true in real life so it helps”.

Speaking on the process of this series David talks about photographing college races initially but soon found out the expressions weren’t conveying what he was interested in, “they were more focussed and determined and to be fair they were basically professional runners at that point”. It wasn’t until he started going to high school races that it started to speak to him and he found quickly he needed to travel to races in the central valley of California in order to get the right light, heat and sky to bring out the sweat which manifested the intensity in a visual way. “I went to a race every Saturday for one entire season, with no clear plan on how it would come together in the book, I just knew I wanted close ups of faces to be the centre point’.

On finishing this body of work David thinks about wanting to go back to shoot more races but is consumed by other projects at current and mentions maybe he’ll return in the future in some way – maybe one of these kids will be the next phenom, or like the majority of us will use running as something to reflect on in later years and even create bodies of artwork around it.