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Ignite 009: Will Mebane

The Ignite Series is a monthly interview of an artist, creator, or community organizer whose passion has inspired us. In honor of its subject, we create a collectible piece of matchbox art for our subscribers.


Will Mebane works as a photographer on fine-art, commercial and editorial projects. He also happens to have shot many of the photos of our candles, since we were neighbors in our original candle studio.

Will is a frequent contributor to publications like The New Yorker and New York Times and also happens to be one of the most down-to-earth people we know. We sat down with Will to to hear more about his creative journey, finding inspiration, and favorite scents.


Will Mebane with his son Bern

Harry Doull (HD): How did you get into photography? What was the motivation?

Will Mebane (WM): I started photographing when I was a kid. My first inspiration for photography was watching slideshows with my family. My grandfather worked in the newspaper business. He and my grandmother traveled extensively. After their travels, the ritual was to watch a slideshow. That was how I first really experienced photography as a field.

Later when I took a class in high school, my teacher introduced me to the book, “The Americans” by Robert Frank. I know it's somewhat of a cliché to say that I was inspired by the book, but it's just the honest truth. It was my first exposure to art photography. It had a huge impact on me and I said to myself at that point that I really want to do this.

Specifically, there was a photograph that was made in Charleston, South Carolina that—to me—summarized the complexity of life in the South, and specifically in South Carolina where I was from. Its power to approach all the complexity around what that's like made me want to try to do something similar.

The photo that inspired Will, by Robert Frank (Credit: Met Museum)

HD: What was the biggest challenge to getting to where you are?

WM: I think the biggest challenge to working as a freelancer is balancing the hope and despair continuum on which you operate. When you're doing assignments, it's so exciting and challenging and stimulating, and then it ends—and you've got to go out and essentially hustle for the next project, and that's challenging.

“And I would have similar advice to photographers: that the most important part of the career and the practice is the practice itself.”

HD: What was your first big break that allowed you to make a career in photography?

WM: I know for certain that I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing if it weren’t for the support of my wife, Martha. At every turn, she’s always encouraged me to stay true to my voice both as a person and as a photographer. She has been so generous with time, energy, and patience.

There were several professional breaks then, really. I think the first big one for me was making a photo essay about my friend Max, who has Down's Syndrome. It makes me emotional talking about it. (Long pause) That was really important because it introduced me to the responsibility that I had as a photographer when I was representing someone else's experience. I learned a great deal by working with him and his family.

The second big break for me was going to school at the San Francisco Art Institute, and starting really long lasting mentorships with great professors like Henry Wessel and Linda Connor.

Professionally, the first big break for me came from a photo editor at Esquire. She gave me a couple of big, challenging feature assignments that were about the Iraq War and counter insurgency strategy. After that, other assignments flowed from there.

HD: What advice would you give to someone looking to become a full time photographer?

WM: I'm going to paraphrase advice that I think Spike Jonze originally gave (I hope I’m not misattributing). He said that when he's looking to hire people in his crew, he looks for people who have made movies, because they have to think about everything, from storyboarding to lens choice, to film stock, and style and editing and counting, and showing the film.

And I would have similar advice to photographers: that the most important part of the career and the practice is the practice itself. Just go out and make stories and bodies of work, and continue to make new ones—because that's how you learn the craft.

Second, a really important thing for professional growth is to have a great mentor. It's really important to try to learn from photographers that you admire, both through their work and the way they treat other people.

Finally, develop a peer support network, a group of friends that you trust that can offer you good feedback, good input.

Will has a particular ability to capture the ineffable qualities of America

HD: How do you decompress, especially with kids and the travel you have to do?

WM: I've often joked that I think my favorite room in Brooklyn is the steam room at the YMCA on 9th Street.

HD: Do you have any rituals that you turn to in order to relax or find inspiration?

WM: I'm consistently inconsistent in my ritual behavior. I incorporate time to do yoga, swim or work out. I think that's a really important practice. If I'm traveling for work, I don't often get an opportunity to go to the gym, but if I can get in there just once or twice, it helps quite a bit.

“The coast of British Columbia is a truly inspiring place—it's wild and remote, and just fantastic.”

HD: Do you have any role models / people that you look(ed) up to that led you to where you are? How did they inspire and guide you?

WM: I'm blessed because I've had a number of different mentors in my life. Many of them continue to be a part of my life and my network of friends. One of my most consistent mentors though is my dad. He worked in the newspaper business, so I talk with him most days of the week, and we talk about work, ideas, and about the practice of photography and photojournalism.

Besides those I already mentioned, another good mentor and friend is Max's father, David Douglas, who is a painter and teacher. He has offered continual support and guidance along the way.

My friend Martin Hyers—I worked for him and his wife and they have both been tremendous supporters of me and my work and remain good friends. We work on collaborative projects together. So in that regard, we're still very much connected, although our role between mentor and friend and partner has shifted over time.

HD: Where in the world is your happy place? Where would you escape to right now if you could?

WM: There are a few places that we go to as a family to recharge. One of them is to Western North Carolina where my family lives. The mountains there are really inspirational to me. That's where I grew up hiking, learning to climb, and learning to explore the rivers there.

The second place is Western Canada where my wife's family is from. The coast of British Columbia is a truly inspiring place—it's wild and remote, and just fantastic.

The third place, which is relatively new to me is the Adirondacks, upstate. Just a magical, special place. They are places that we go as a family and recharge.

Adirondacks and British Columbia, by Will

HD: If you could capture a scent or smell where/what would it be?

WM: Cedar forest on the coast of British Columbia.

HD: What makes you most optimistic about the future?

WM: My kids. I look at how their world view is open, positive and supportive of people that are different from them and who have different life experiences—and that gives me hope that the arc of history is bending towards justice.

HD: What are you working on, what are you excited about, what’s next?

WM: Right now I'm just wrapping up the week being out photographing a project about the elections, about America. I’ve been working a lot on assignments that are about who are we as a nation and where we stand with this American experiment. I've got a number of projects that are underway looking at that. They should be released some time in the next year or so. .

HD: How beautiful, thank you Will!

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Article Credits

Interview by Harry Doull
All photos Will Mebane unless noted
Artwork by Dan Abary
All credits noted.

The Keap Ignite Series

We share something new and inspiring every month alongside our subscription candles. The Keap Ignite series is a 12-volume interview series with artists, creators and community leaders that have inspired us. For our subscribers, this takes the form of a collectible mini-zine and matchbox in each monthly package. Learn more about the Keap candle subscription.

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