Signs of the time

Catherine Linder Spencer’s new photography series treads a nostalgic path

Images from Linder Spencer’s FOUND TEXT TRACES series

Photos courtesy of the artist


Found Text Traces is on view at Western New York Book Arts Center beginning June 1.


Artist Catherine Linder Spencer has a visceral connection to Buffalo’s East Side, a family legacy of metal burnished by deep-rooted memories. Her family ran an East Side recycling business called United Alloys and Steel for over fifty-five years. Though she didn’t live in that part of town, Linder Spencer spent many days traveling its streets to and from “the shop” with her father. “From the time I was a little girl,” she says, “I paid close attention to the buildings and the signs, and I developed a deep affection for them.” Today, the photographer finds melancholic beauty in the aging and often vacant structures, vestiges of the neighborhood’s industrial past. Her work often involves artfully composed visions of physical decay, which sometimes function as abstract paintings.



Linder Spencer has a particular interest in the vintage hand-painted signs on the sides of commercial buildings. The once ubiquitous promotional tool, now a lost art, is fading fast from the urban landscape. “Fading” is not just a rhetorical flourish here; the advertisements are mere specters of their former existence. Years of sun, rain, and winter weather have eroded the artisanal inscriptions. Viewing them today sparks misty visions of a distant past when terse block-letter messages signaled mercantile bustle.


Linder Spencer is certainly not the only photographer who draws inspiration from decaying urban architecture and signage; the subject matter is pretty much a subgenre of photography. But for her, having spent almost thirty years recording these text-based endorsements for cheese, breweries, mirror factories, machine shops, and other bygone industries, it’s a lifelong interest. Some signs are so faint they are barely discernible. Occasionally, a sign has faded to reveal another one underneath, like an archaeological dig where one culture is discovered under another. Some of the buildings, along with their signs, have been demolished since she photographed them.



Beginning June 1, the Western New York Book Arts Center is exhibiting a selection of the artist’s photographs in an exhibition entitled Found Text Traces: if these walls could talk. “I love telling other people’s stories through my work,” explains Linder Spencer, “and I had recently been writing ‘found text’ poems based on the messages on the backs of vintage postcards that I collect.” As the artist reviewed her photographs for the exhibition, she noticed a similar “found thread” that wove throughout the images. She has since been composing the pictures—in both senses of the word—into a roughly eight-foot-wide arrangement of sign text, that will also function as a syntactic composition in which the entire exhibit “reads” like a poem.    


In recent years, Linder Spencer has been exhibiting her work in historic buildings located near the subject matter of her photographs, something of a fine art version of the “locally sourced” movement. She likes the “symbiotic” relationship this creates between art and venue. But there is an added sentimental motivation for exhibiting this latest work in the Slotkin Building on the corner of East Mohawk and Washington streets, where the Book Arts Center is located today. “I remember it from my childhood,” she says, “particularly seeing it from the bus I rode with my Grandma Sally heading downtown to go to Hengerer’s Tea Room or the Ice Capades at War Memorial Auditorium.” And now, years later, Linder Spencer’s memories will have come full circle.    


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