Aaron Hegert is in his first year as Assistant Professor of Photography at Texas Tech University. He holds a BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute and an MFA from Indiana University. He is a Fulbright Scholar (Paris 2008), and a founding member of Everything Is Collective. His work has been exhibited and published widely, with recent exhibitions at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, the Aperture Foundation in New York City, Royal Nonesuch Gallery in Oakland, California; the University Art Gallery at University of California, San Diego; the Urban Arts Space at Ohio State University in Columbus; and the Center for Photography at Woodstock, to name a few. His publications are held in The Joan Flasch Artists Book Collection at the school of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Franklin Furnace Archive in Brooklyn, and the Museum of Modern Art Library in New York City. Aaron Hegert lives and works in Lubbock Texas.
Hegert’s research is focused on digital media and photography as a site of collective labor. His approach to the photographic medium is highly self-aware, and he does not treat photography as a transparent tool that can be used to look objectively at whatever is placed in front of the lens, but instead considers the entire process of making a photographic image and the fact that the camera (and software, and algorithms) changes whatever it records, warping its meaning, its context, and its appearance in ways that have a very real effect on the way the subject of any given photograph is interpreted. Rather than treating these distortions of character as a problem that must be defeated, Hegert chooses instead to exaggerate them, calling attention to the way the photograph filters knowledge and creates unforeseen connections between images, objects, and people.
Shallow Learning is a series that compares the way people see photographs to the way algorithms see photographs. “Deep learning” is a branch of artificial intelligence that allows a computer to identify and categorize data without human supervision, and to improve its performance as it works. It is common in software used for facial detection, image recognition, and computer vision, among many other things. Shallow Learning, titled as an opposition or contrast to that term, is a project that compares the way people see photographs to the way algorithms see photographs. Each of the images in this series is a composite that includes one original and previously unpublished photograph from the artists archive, and one appropriated, “visually similar” photograph found on the internet using Google’s “Search by Image” feature. In each composite the original photo and the appropriated one have been joined together using the “Content Aware Fill” tool in Adobe Photoshop. The resulting images show varying degrees of success and failure in the algorithm’s ability to recognize a photograph, and contrast the way people learn from images to the way machines do.
Why Texas Tech University?
Studying at TTU comes with all the advantages you would expect from a tier one research university— A Faculty of highly accomplished artists and educators, An MFA program with ample funding opportunities and an emphasis on interdisciplinary/multimedia practice, a BFA program that prepares students for the wide range of options and opportunities they will find after graduation, and well maintained facilities staffed by technical experts who can help facilitate ambitious student projects and thinking.
What courses do you teach?
I teach all levels of photography here, from Introduction to Photography through Graduate Seminar and everything in between. All of my upper level and graduate courses have rotating themes or special topics that emphasize a variety conceptual or theoretical approaches to the medium, and I try to allow a lot of flexibility in my assignments and course criteria so that students can actively explore their own personal research interests and creative processes, while at the same time acquiring any technical skills necessary along the way. This spring for instance, my graduate course will be focused on The Production of Space and artists who work outside the studio, so the seminar meetings will happen out in public and we will visit sites relevant to our readings and conversation topics. The students will be free to produce whatever kind of work they want for the critiques, and our shared experience from the site visits and readings will give us a common vocabulary to work with while trying to help each other become better artists. I am also very invested in collaboration and collective art making, so I try to encourage and facilitate that whenever I can.
How does your program bridge the gap between traditional and contemporary photographic practices?
Students are free to pursue whatever form of photography or its related media they want here. Undergraduate students will all be introduced to a variety of digital and analog processes, and we do maintain and staff a very nice traditional darkroom, but advanced students and MFA candidates will use whatever media or output suits their personal interests and lines of inquiry best. That could mean anything from making large scale digital printing to tintypes, 4x5 view cameras to structure scanners, video, web based projects, 35mm, 3D printing… you name it.
Describe the process of output for photographs.
We do still make a lot of prints for critique, but again this will be dependent on what the student is presenting and what their own personal research interests are. We encourage experimentation and open thinking about the forms a photograph (or anything else) takes.
Describe the critique format.
I like my students to lead the critiques. I give them a loose structure to follow, which usually involves putting their work into context and providing background, pointing out new developments, approaches, and problems, and ultimately telling us what they want to talk about. Then we talk about it. There are sometimes visiting artists or critics. The students can invite anyone they want. The point of critique is to help each other broaden and deepen the scope of our work, and to bring it as close as possible to its full potential. As long as everyone keeps that in mind I’m happy.
Where can we keep up with your photo department online?