the philosophical fly on the wall : a conversation about photography, solo travel and cheesy smiles with madeline northway

"It's really important to enjoy your own company."

courtesy @madelinnorthway instagram

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CoateRak: Ok, so I’m just gonna start recording and see what happens. I know it gets weird once you know you’re being recorded but let’s just try to go with it.

Madeline Northway: Yeah, once you know you just sort of freeze up. Ha.

CR: Yeah...Oh. So along those lines, were you ever that kid who gave this hugely cheesy smile once you knew the camera was on them? You know, like those kids that almost look like they’re in pain because they’re told to “smile” and they don’t really know what that means.

MN: Totally! And I see it all the time when I’m taking pictures, too. You have to make them genuinely laugh in order to get a good picture. It’s kind of how I felt, too, when I was doing that podcast thing which has kind of come to an end, but when we were recording the first couple of episodes it seemed so unnatural and I was like “This is my new voice”.

CR: [awkward sensual voice] “Hello…”

MN: Yes.

CR: So as a photographer, I feel like good photographers, as they’re shooting people, they make people forget they’re taking pictures.

MN: Really funny, actually, I just photographed this Indian couple last night for their engagement. I’d never met them before, I was shooting it for someone else who hired me to do it for them, and I met up with them and could just tell they were very uncomfortable with the situation. I put them in a couple poses and they would be in the pose for a couple shots and then look at me like, “Ok. Are we done yet?” That’s just one of those things were I kind of tell jokes and make an ass out of myself. Because the reality of the situation is that this is a really awkward thing that we’re doing. Making you look like you’re in a natural setting, embracing each other while it’s totally fabricated and we’re in a crowd of people and I’m taking pictures of you. And I somehow have to make this look natural.

CR: That is a huge feat.

MN: Yeah. So I actually texted the person who hired me afterwards and she asked if they were awkward, because she could sense from her communications with them that they might be. And I was like, yep, basically. But towards the end they finally loosened up. And it’s funny because whenever I put on my telephoto lens and I had them stand far away on this overlook over the water and I was maybe ten/fifteen feet away and that’s whenever they would just be talking, laughing, doing their normal thing and from that point on it was totally normal. I could put them in a pose and say “Just keep doing what you’re doing. It’s amazing. Just interact with each other. Tell jokes. Whatever you have to do to cope with this current situation”.

CR: Ha. As if it’s a traumatic experience. Which it can be sometimes.

MN: Yeah. Looking back at film, you can always see the first few shots are the most awkward, terrible photos but then it gets better as it progresses. Actually whenever I edit, I like to start at the end and work my way back because I know those are going to be the better ones.

courtesy @madelinenorthway instagram

CR: So I don’t know how much you theorize or think existentially about your position as a photographer, meaning your relationship between people who are hiring you to take pictures of them and you don’t know them. Do you ever step back and think, in all reality, this is absurd?

MN: Probably. All the time. I overthink a lot. I’m think very existentially to begin with. I have to make myself stop sometimes. Especially because during those kind of situations, I feel like an outsider. I honestly feel like a fly on the wall in these places. I feel like I’m spying on people. I feel like I’m looking into people’s lives where no one else has a chance to. That’s the crazy thing about my job. Even that rehearsal dinner I shot the other night. I’m there photographing people, watching people interact, seeing the dynamics of these relationships and standing there listening to all these speeches about the couple by their loved ones. And I feel like I know these people so well right now. But they have no idea who I am. I’m just this person in the corner taking pictures and probably don’t think twice about me. It’s such a weird feeling. But that’s why I love it. I’m a natural observer. I’ve always been that way. I’ve never been the center of attention. I’ve always been hanging back and watching things happen. That’s why it’s the perfect job for me.

CR: So are you for sure going to go to Southeast Asia in the winter? Have you developed a plan or anything?

MN: Yeah. So I’ve actually really delved into the world of frequent flyer miles the other day. Literally researching for an entire day. So basically I need to rack up some points on this credit card I got.

CR: What credit card is that?

MN: Chase Sapphire Reserve. It’s apparently the best credit card for travel in existence right now. So I’m gonna wait to rack up all the points I need and then book it. I want to fly into Vietnam, then do Phuket, Bangkok and then fly back. And I want to go to Cambodia while I’m there, too.

CR: Awesome. When did you start thinking about wanting to go?

MN: I had the idea to go to Thailand about four months ago. My sister and her husband went for their honeymoon for a month and one of my really good friends had his artist residency in Shanghai and had the most amazing experience and took super good photos. Another friend of mine, who I swear I just follow him around the world. He went to Japan, then I went to Japan. He’s the one who told me about the cheap ticket. He just got back from Thailand and now I want to go there now.

courtesy @madelinenorthway instagram

CR: Your last trip to Japan you went by yourself. This trip you want to go by yourself, as well. Do you often feel like you travel alone?

MN: Yeah. It’s kind of something that just started happening on accident. I’m trying to think when my first true traveling alone experience was...I have friends all over the country and I think that’s just how it started. If there was no one to go with me, I would just say, Ok, I’m just gonna by myself. I think that’s how it started. And then I had this moment where I was working this job outside of Sacramento. I was there for a week doing headshots for this airplane company. Super random. I had one day left and I had booked my flight to fly out of San Francisco and it was between Sacramento and San Francisco, kind of in the middle of nowhere. I wanted to go to San Francisco and I just kind of found my way there. I had to take an Uber to a bus to a ferry to San Francisco. It all just kind of happened. And I think after that experience I was addicted. It was the challenge and the thrill of it all. Can I do this? Can I figure my way there with no one to help me? I show up to this bus station. It looks like it’s not even open. I need to ask people if this is the right place, I’m looking at google maps. I don’t have any service. I ask the bus driver and they say, You can take this to this and get on this bus here. I get there and they say you can take this ferry and I’m like, Ok I’ll take this ferry.

CR: Must’ve been a very big fairy to carry you all the way there.

MN: The biggest. The biggest wings. Super magical.

CR: You braided her hair as you went. Well, that’s awesome. I love that.

MN: I think that in it’s essence is what solo travel is about for me. The wingin’ it aspect and being total reliant on yourself. I was just sharing stories with a friend who just got back from Amsterdam, which has me rethinking my decision about Asia because it sounds like the most perfect place on the planet. But she’s like, I get it now. Traveling alone is so amazing. And I’ve had so many conversations about the ups and downs. There are definitely advantages and disadvantages of solo travel and having a travel companion. I think finding a travel companion that you’re compatible with is the most important thing. She was like, Yeah I’d make a plan for the day, what museums I’d want to go to. But she was in Amsterdam so she’d just be smoking a J in the park, laying there and just decide to stay there for an hour or two and not have anyone to check in with.

CR: My youngest sister, who’s 19, she just saved up and did a solo trip around Northern Europe and she traveled all around and she’s never done that on her own before, she’s always been with us, so she said she was really able to decipher that what she decided to do was what she wanted to do. Like, going on a 14 mile hike and a 4 hour kayak ride in Norway - which she doesn’t really do back home, but she knew that she wasn’t doing it because of any influence from anyone else. Which is super awesome and informative about it, it’s a companionship with yourself.

MN: It’s really important to enjoy your own company.

CR: Which is a really hard thing to do. Enjoying yourself.

MN: Yeah, that’s why I’m really grateful I’ve found that from these experiences.

CR: So there’s a part in your pages you write “I love my city. I love being here”. Did you feel like you had to remind yourself of that?

MN: Yeah because sometimes I’m here and I’m like, This is amazing. I would not want to be anywhere else. And I felt like I needed to write that down because, well, winter in Chicago. It always gets hard then. I’m sure you go through that, too.

CR: Who doesn’t?

MN: But it’s one of those things that I think I can take for granted a lot. I think, Where else can I go? Where else can I live? That’s just in my nature, I think. But that’s what was cool about having the pages to force me to reflect on things. I liked that. And I wanted to say - No. I love it here.

CR: What do you like about Chicago?

MN: I love living in my neighborhood. I love that there’s all these different things at my fingertips. But it also can be very quiet at times. It’s a really good balance. That’s why I had that moment when I was walking home in Logan Square. This is so cool to walk down the street and go to the movie theater, and have brunch, and go to a music store. There’s all these things. In literally a city block everything can happen. But then I had a peaceful walk home on a quiet street. It was an amazing balance to have. I love that about Chicago. It’s a big city with a smaller town vibe, I guess. It was not how New York felt to me, which was so chaotic all the time. Chicago has Midwest vibes still. People are generally friendly. And there’s just a lot of cool shit here. Which is exactly how I want it.

CR: So you went to New York for Fashion Week. How was that? What did you shoot?

courtesy @madelinenorthway instagram

MN: Shooting the runway shows were all over the city. Years in the past, Fashion Week used to be all under one roof - it was at Lincoln Center. And now the dynamic has totally changed and they have the shows spread out all throughout the city. Which was cool and frustrating. I was literally running all over the city all day. It was super exhausting, but it was also a cool way to get a view of the city and all the different neighborhoods. Kind of figuring out how the geography works there. I would be completely wrong about my sense of direction every time. It was definitely some bucket list stuff. Things I had dreamed of doing growing up. Literally dreams coming true. It was insane. Insane and amazing.

CR: What were some of your favorite things you did or saw?

MN: Shooting backstage was really fun for me. Shooting the shows was cool, but there isn’t any creativity that goes into it. You’re all taking the same picture, pretty much. So I really liked shooting backstage, that’s when I felt I fell back into my groove. The whole fly on the wall thing. Being back stage at the Marchesa show was probably my favorite. Bobbi brown was there doing makeup. I walk back there and immediately I’m like, Shit, that’s Bobbi brown. People are trying to interview her and I’m taking pictures of her. It was really exciting. The quality was better. The hair and makeup are amazing.

courtesy @madelinenorthway instagram

CR: Do you have a “goal” or specific industry you want to specialize in? Like focus on food or fashion or travel? Or just all of it.

MN: At the current moment, all of them. It’s been a lifelong struggle, I guess. Trying to figure out my place with all that. Growing up and getting into photography, fashion is what got me into photography. I love shooting people and fashion was the way to do that in a super creative way and a collaborative way. So that’s why I like that. I went to LA and worked in fashion in that environment. It kind of put me off for a bit. I came back to Chicago and didn’t know if I was ok with that industry. It was weird. I was working in the modeling industry and was hearing 13 year old girls being told what size they needed to be. And hearing them turned down by agencies. Just seeing that was super eye-opening. Is this something I’m morally ok with? I questioned that a lot. I had a big “quarter life crisis”, if that’ what you want to call it where I moved back to Chicago because something I wanted to do my entire life, I’m having all these doubts about. That’s when I started taking whatever jobs I had here - food, weddings, family. Just whatever. Taking that time to ground myself. But now I’m circling back and going to Fashion Week reminded me I’m still really interesting in this. Why? So I’m trying to figure it out. And of course, the travel thing will always be in my life.

courtesy @madelinenorthway instagram

CR: You didn’t need to have a straight answer, obviously. I was just curious.

MN: Yeah, it’s all circling in my inner dialogue.

CR: But doing many things is also a strength, you’re not being narrow minded, you’re open to different things informing your practice and that’s great.

MN: And that’s another thing I wrote in my pages - I love my job because I never know where it’s going to take me. I learn so much assisting on jobs that are documenting other people’s jobs, things I never would have insight on.

CR: Well, thank you for letting me stalk your brain. I’m very excited to see where you continue to go.

To see more of Madeline's photography, visit And give her a follow on Instagram: @MadelineNorthway.