Scanning Pilchuck: 50 Years and 70,000 Photos!

I doubt there is anyone in the glass community who is unfamiliar with Pilchuck Glass School located outside of Seattle, Washington. Founded by Dale Chihuly and patrons Anne and John Hauberg, its rise from experimental workshop to international glass center is a modern-day fairytale with one small twist—in this version, Cinderella makes her own glass slippers. 

2021 will mark Pilchuck’s 50th anniversary and it has partnered with the Rakow Research Library to digitize over 70,000 images from Pilchuck’s archives. For the better part of two years (less the seven months spent in lockdown), that project has been mine. I am Ann Cady, digitization assistant at the Rakow and it is my responsibility to spin this analog straw into digital gold. 

To the rest of the world, Pilchuck looks something like this: rolling hills, smiling artists, blazing gloryholes, and more than a few familiar faces. 

Iconic image of Pilchuck in its first few years. 

But to me, this is Pilchuck:

70,000 slides on the wall, 70,000 slides . . .

Cardboard boxes stacked three high filled with slides, polaroids, negatives, and prints. 50 years of photographic flotsam and jetsam waiting to be transferred from film to digital.

I’ve spent countless hours watching images flash before me, from a muddy field in a horse pasture to session after session of students, teachers, demos, and larger-than-life installations covering the now sprawling grounds. The faces change, some completely as new people come and go, and some slowly as artists return year after year to continue to be part of it all. I was disappointed that the first decade filled only one binder. I wanted more of that muddy camp and those tiny houses. But it was enough to see how the place began to grow and where it started.

Dale Chihuly and William Morris shape a Macchia, 1983.

At some point in the early 80s things began to fall into place and slides from each year easily filled several binders. They also hired a professional photographer, Russell Johnson, which was a huge relief to me since well-exposed and in-focus images are far easier to digitize. While Russell did not photograph everything in Pilchuck’s archives, his images show up time and again and we were always happy to see his name on the slides when we opened a new binder.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, I had a dedicated team of volunteers helping me each week to make this daunting task a little easier and a whole lot livelier. Our fearless leader Gordon worked out the schedule and refined our process until we knew to the second how long it took to photograph each slide. A three-person assembly line moved the slides from sleeve, to slide tray, to the camera, and back to the sleeve while I watched over the images coming through on the computer and did the post-processing and exporting. I’d like to point out that the room isn’t all that large, so having four people in there at one time (in the dark no less) was close quarters but we found that it worked for us.

I always wondered how Gordon pitched that to prospective volunteers – “Hey, do you want to come to a small dark room and move slides around for four hours every week?”—seems somehow ineffective as a marketing strategy, and yet they came. Week after week, they came and helped, and binder after binder slid into the ‘done’ pile.

Thomas Buechner at Pilchuck.

Many of us purchased Tina Oldknow’s book, Pilchuck: A Glass School, and watched the documentary, A Dance with Fire, to brush up on our Pilchuck history. I suggested we all get matching tank tops in honor of the clearly preferred article of clothing in front of a hot glory hole but, alas, it was not to be. As with everything else, the pandemic stopped us cold. The Corning Museum of Glass and the Rakow Library temporarily shut down and our volunteers were scattered to the wind.

For now, I carry on alone. I am making progress slowly and steadily, albeit more sedately than before. But, when the pandemic finally lifts, and the last slide is scanned, we are having a party—perhaps a costume party. Pilchuck knows what I’m talking about. They’ve had a few of their own over the years, I know, I’ve seen them.


Special thanks and my undying gratitude to volunteers Gordon Shedd, Bill Horsfall, Tricia Louiz, Michelle Berliss, Nancy O’Loughlin, Sophie Mayolet, Andrea Bocko, and Liza McKee-Cole. 

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