Local photographer Elizabeth Cecil: Inspired by the sea

Elizabeth Cecil shooting at the beach.

Elizabeth Cecil shooting at the beach.

In shades of blue and gray, photographer Elizabeth Cecil’s seascapes, her “Ocean” series, can currently be found on the walls of the lifestyle and home store Salte and at Rosewater Market, both in Edgartown. The series of sea-themed photographs are a departure for those used to seeing Ms. Cecil’s tempting photos of Rombi with Pumpkin and Pecorino, or Caramelized Onion, Herbed Ricotta, and Arugula Pizza in Edible Vineyard magazine. These ocean-view photos open up another artistic side of Ms. Cecil, a part of her that expresses her love and appreciation for the natural beauty of the Vineyard.

“I grew up in a Midwestern city in a little bungalow on a city street,” Ms. Cecil said during a visit at Rosewater a couple of weeks ago. “Now I live on a beautiful Island; you have to take a plane or ferry to get here. I get to surf with my friends and my husband, and I love being in nature for my work.”

Ms. Cecil is one of seven brothers and sisters, growing up in Milwaukee on the western shore of Lake Michigan. She’s still very close to them, documenting life in a large family through her lens. Her brother-in-law Livio gave her a blue Fisher-Price camera when she was 7, and she still has it — thanks to him hanging onto it for a couple of decades.

When she was in high school, a teacher from her old Montessori school asked if she and a friend wanted to work as summer camp counselors at a New York City Montessori school. That’s when she knew she wanted to live on the East Coast. Then Ms. Cecil left for college in Newport, R.I.: “That’s where I started to fall in love with the ocean,” Ms. Cecil said. “But I grew up on Lake Michigan, which looks like an inland ocean. You can surf on it.”

Ms. Cecil’s pop-up exhibition at Salte in Edgartown.

She said she floated around a while after finishing college, a little burned out with photography, and ready to explore all her options. She moved to the Vineyard on sort of a whim, she said, and worked for a friend, eventually falling into a job working on a sailboat.

“I’m not a sailor, but it was a really, really great experience, and I got to see so many islands and be on the water,” she said. “It was so different from the life I’d had. I was gathering experiences at that age; I was shaped by those experiences, and they make me who I am now.”

All the while she was taking pictures, but with no clear intention. Ms. Cecil decided to head back to school, this time in Rockport, Maine, where she immersed herself in the darkroom.

“That was the best thing I could’ve done for myself,” she said. Rockport was another seaside community. “I never get too far from the water.”

Ms. Cecil continued to develop her skills, working as a teaching assistant in the photography program in Maine. Meanwhile, she reconnected with an acquaintance from the Island, her now-husband stone craftsman and sculptor Eben Armer. “He asked me to move back to the Island, and I wasn’t really planning on that either,” she smiled.

She worked at Mary Etherington’s fine art gallery in Vineyard Haven, where she met another influential artist, Clifford Smith.

“Jennifer” by Elizabeth Cecil

“Mary had great taste, and was a great teacher; she’s since moved to Marfa, Texas,” Ms. Cecil said. “It was a good introduction to what artists have to do to make it work, and what galleries have to do to make it work. Clifford Smith was an amazing painter. He did these giant paintings of the surface of the water.”

As part of her job, Ms. Cecil drove Mr. Smith to different locations around the Island, oftentimes looking for inspiration on the water, and the two became good friends.

“He became my mentor, and really pushed me to do the work. No matter what I was doing to make money, I was always working on my photography as well,” she said. “He was very important at that time. He was another artist with similar interests, and it was sort of great that he wasn’t a photographer. It was a different perspective.”

Eventually she met Edible Vineyard founder Ali Berlow through the Island Grown Initiative’s mobile chicken-processing unit, something friends of hers were involved with. They ran into each other at the grocery store, and Ms. Cecil told her she had some photos she’d like to share with her. Ms. Berlow liked what she saw, and asked Ms. Cecil to come take photos for the new food magazine she was starting. They worked together for several years at Edible Vineyard, with Ms. Cecil becoming the photo editor of the publication, a position she left not long ago. She continues to maintain a relationship with the magazine, consulting and taking photos.

“Edible Vineyard was a unique opportunity,” Ms. Cecil said. “They gave me a platform to learn my craft, and we really grew together. I feel really blessed that I had that opportunity and it really built my portfolio. Ali was so amazing, and Sam and Missie [editor Sydney Bender]; we have a great, great time.”

Looking to broaden her options even further, Ms. Cecil hired a creative strategist. “We set some goals, and in one year we achieved all the goals,” she said. “We worked on editing my portfolio and created promotional materials. I sent out 100 promos, including to Bon Appétit and Saveur — two that I really wanted to work with. Editorially, you have to put your work in front of people in a beautiful way.”

The hard work has paid off, and now Ms. Cecil’s work can be found in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, among other top publications. She’s working on a cookbook for Martha Stewart Books, and traveling a lot these days.

She and Eben married a couple of years ago. “We’re always talking about art,” she said. “We’re able to bounce ideas off each other, and we’re really honest about it with each other. I really value Eben’s opinion, and we always have each other and each other’s work on our minds. He texted me the other day, ‘The light is so beautiful right now you need to be outside shooting.’ He’s always looking out for me that way.”

They live in West Tisbury, in a house where the colors of nature are dominant. “Our house is very white and gray and blue…we have a theme of sea colors,” she said.

She admitted it’s hard work to maintain a personal life and a professional life. “I try to have a good balance, but it’s hard to run your own business, make your personal work and do editorial and commercial work. It’s a lot of work, running around and traveling, but I’m passionate about it. I wouldn’t trade it, you know?”

To view more of Elizabeth Cecil’s work, visit her website, elizabethcecil.com.