Location: Bad Axe, Mich.
It’s one of my favorite stories about how a town was named; don’t settle in for it though, the story is quick.
Here it is: A piece of broken axe was discovered in a tree at an old camping site toward the mid 19th century. Short story made even shorter—where the axe was, is where Bad Axe, MI is.
It begs the question: depending on what was found in that spot, who knows what the town could’ve been named?
A small town with a unique origin and backstory is too much to resist, so of course it became a must-stop spot on a photo excursion I made in the thumb of Michigan’s lower peninsula. Michigan’s thumb country—specifically here, Huron County—is flat and farmed with small towns and villages spread out for many miles between farmhouses and fields. The sky is big.
My earliest memory of Bad Axe was when their high school played a local school up north. It’s such an interesting name, it stuck in my head ever since. I have to believe that as a name for a high school sports team, you can’t get much more intimidating than Bad Axe.
One of my favorite experiences in photography is exploring unfamiliar places; everything is new. As I made my way toward the city center of Bad Axe, I was surprised at how big it was. The downtown area had some historic buildings. To the east was a beautiful movie theater and farther down the road was a feed store.
Appreciating the Small Town
After stepping out of my vehicle, the silence is what struck me first. Actually, more accurately, it wasn’t the silence but the quiet. There were sounds: a breeze swirled fallen leaves across the street; a truck honked its horn and waved to a pedestrian; and a dog protecting its yard was barking.
My camera slung over my shoulder, I began to walk. In photography, advice and tips come in all forms and from all people. In photojournalism, it’s common to hear from photo editors that it’s all about moments. Moments are indeed important. They can tell a story by delivering peak visual interest as the photo captivates its viewers.
Being in a small, quiet town though, I’m reminded of how I’ve always enjoyed the more subtle moments of photography. This is still street photography, mind you, just a more subdued form of it. Inactive moments can be as important, if not more so sometimes, than active moments. Hushed scenes of the banal add context and visual elements that add to an environment’s complete story.
Of course there are exceptions. If you’re on an assignment and your job is to capture a certain vibe of a place for a publication, you’ll be photographing what that publication wants. That could be portraits and scene setters, or any number of subject matter.
For the purposes of this post though, I’m simply approaching it as a personal assignment, with the subject matter being 100 percent up to you. You are the photographer here, as well as the photo editor and controller of final output.
In the radius of only a couple of blocks, a variety of scenes were presenting themselves. This was during pre-COVID so some people were entering a movie theater and the theater had a large, red marquee with ‘Bad Axe’, and an axe, in neon. I was there during the day so I wasn’t able to see it in all it’s lit-up neon glory, I have to imagine that it glows warmly and brightly, or at least, once did.
Sometimes, it can be overwhelming to think about all the visual possibilities that there are. Don’t be overwhelmed. Walk, listen, look and take in your surroundings. Every now and then, think about what you’re feeling and what you’re senses are telling you, then make an image.