Elizabeth Cecil spent her childhood chasing trains with her father. Richard Cecil created intricate model railways in their basement, and he was also interested in photography. So whenever they traveled, he would always factor in stops at nearby railroads. They’d speed down the road, adrenaline spiked, racing the locomotive to the perfect perch to take a photograph.

Now Ms. Cecil chases light; a very specific light that evokes the winters of her Milwaukee youth hovering over endless oceans. Her photographs are often hazy seascapes that evoke soft movement with the promise of distant storms. Some fade from ocean to foggy sky so subtly there is no discernible difference between the liquid and the vapor. Others have a more defined horizon with frenzied movement in the waves and clouds.

“I’m certainly not your average sunset photographer,” Ms. Cecil, 40, told the Gazette in a recent interview. “It’s just not what I’m drawn to.”

Ms. Cecil was sitting outside of Salte, a home goods store in Edgartown, which currently has a pop-up show of her most recent photography project called Oceans. She credits the adrenaline of the train chase, the magic of a dark room and a blue Fisher-Price camera given to her by her brother-in-law at age seven with developing her interest in photography. Her interest in water has been with her since birth.

Current exhibit is called Oceans, hanging at Salte in Edgartown. — Jeanna Shepard

“My parents always said I was a fish when I was little,” she said. “I’d always be like blue lips trying to get me out of the pool or the lake.”

Though she grew up far from the coast, Lake Michigan was nearby, a lake so large it might as well have been an ocean to a young girl. After high school she left Milwaukee for Rhode Island, attending Salve Regina University to study photography. There she began to surf, experimented with alternative photographic processes such as gum bichromate and cyanotype, and worked on food photography.

Now a large part of her freelance work is food and lifestyle photography. For several years, she was the photo editor of Edible Vineyard, she’s completed assignments for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and her work has been on the cover of Bon Appetit Magazine more than once. Recently, she did the photography for Sarah Waldman’s cookbook, Feeding a Family.

She focuses on capturing authenticity in her subjects, and her fine art is shot on film with a Hasselblad camera. She chases the natural light that favors early mornings and dusky evenings. Luckily, she has always been an early riser. At sleepovers as a girl, she recalled being the first asleep and the first awake, baking muffins while she waited for her friends to rise. When she travels for work, she prefers to board the 6 a.m. ferry. On a recent trip to Rhode Island on assignment for the Wall Street Journal, she spent her early morning ferry commute making pictures of the sea.

However, perfect lighting doesn’t show up on command, and sometimes it shows up at inopportune moments.

“When it’s good you just have to drop everything and go make pictures,” she said. “That can be hard when you have other things you’re supposed to be doing.” So she always has her eye on the weather, and luckily, she has a helper.

“My husband is my home weatherman, and he is also my extra set of eyes,” she said. When he is out driving around, her husband Eben Armer will pause to let her know locations with beautiful light, or encourage her to stop what she’s doing to photograph with a simple, ”It’s your kind of light.”

Oceans mainly focuses on the Vineyard waters, her home for the last 10 years. Ms. Cecil originally came to the Vineyard in her 20s looking for a change. She worked as a gardener in the summer and as a cook aboard a boat in the off-season.

“It was like water and food, all these things that influence you,” she said. “In your twenties I think you’re like a sponge, absorbing all the things that make up your weird life that you don’t have a plan for. You just go and do it, and then it ends up I take a lot of oceanscapes and seascapes and food photography.” 

After one summer, she decided to pursue photography more seriously, and signed up for a workshop at the Maine Photographic Workshops. Despite working as a photographer for her high school newspaper, the documentary style of the workshop instructor wasn’t exactly what she wanted to do. However, the school hosted lectures at night by different photographers, and one of them was Cig Harvey.

“She was so passionate about her work, and it really just made me want to do what she does,” said Ms. Cecil. Something had clicked, and she realized she wanted to go back to school full-time. So she did, packing up her Vineyard life in two weeks and heading straight back to Maine.

“I put my tuition on my credit card, and I was just like, I’m doing this,” she said.

It was in Maine, while rediscovering her purpose, that Ms. Cecil began dating Mr. Armer. It was his connection to the Island that brought her back to the Vineyard, where they now live in West Tisbury.

Looking back, Ms. Cecil admits she was never much of a planner.

“My mom always tried to get me to do a five-year plan,” she said. “I never did.”

However, it seems that she’s always ended up in the right place at the right time.

“I wouldn’t trade it now...those experiences made me who I am,” she said. “And definitely made me the photographer that I am.”

Lately, she’s been introducing more figures into her seascapes as she takes surf-inspired pictures.

“The element of a person is a huge change in the work for me,” she said.

An avid traveler, she and her husband plan their vacations around surf spots. But it’s always a struggle for Ms. Cecil to decide whether to get in the water to surf, or stay on land to photograph.

If she goes in, there is the peaceful feeling of floating in the water, the tingling anticipation of an approaching swell and the rush of adrenaline of catching a wave. If she stays on land, she tries to capture all of that feeling in the photograph.

Oceans, an exhibit featuring photography by Elizabeth Cecil, is hanging at Salte, 6 South Water street in Edgartown.