Is Kenneth Josephson getting serious?

Photography buffs who see the Chicago photographer’s latest work might well come away with that impression. Josephson, longtime professor of photography at the School of the Art Institute, has become well-known internationally as the creator of witty and humorous photographs that question the nature of photography and of perception itself. In Josephson’s world a view of a Swedish palace is partially blocked by a postcard depicting the same building, a black car appears to cast a white shadow on the ground. He tells a visual joke and waits for the viewer to get it.

But since the mid-1980s Josephson has been making periodic trips to England. “I’m really taken with the visualness of the landscape there,” he says. “I’m drawn to photograph it. It’s very compact–things change quite rapidly in the landscape. I especially like the moors.” His latest trip, in 1990, took him to southwest England, to the diverse landscapes of Cornwall, Devon, and Somerset. He brought along a four-by-five view camera and exposed images of trees, moors, and exuberant vegetation. The results of his trip–21 lustrous black-and-white prints, along with one from Wisconsin–are currently on view at the Rhona Hoffman Gallery.

Josephson spent six weeks driving and wandering around the English countryside. He used guidebooks and maps to seek out places he thought might be worth photographing, but also relied on older guides. “I looked for cairns, or ancient stone monuments. I would travel by finding them in the guides or on maps and going to the locations. They are often quite remote, and along the way interesting things appear.”

The “interesting things” Josephson found were often gnarled old trees and vistas of foliage that look more tropical than temperate in their lushness. In one photograph a maple seedling occupies part of the foreground, but it’s hard to spot in the solid wall of vegetation that fills the frame–first weedy plants, then shrubs, then trees in the background. Light bounces in different ways off the various leaves. The shrubs glisten, the evergreens behind them are darker, less glossy. The proliferation of foliage–the abundance of detail–makes the entire image flat. The viewer can appreciate the play of light and shadow, but there’s no way to enter the photograph because the frame is filled to bursting. If this landscape (and “landscape” seems the wrong word for a scene that so lacks openness) is not exactly threatening, it’s certainly not inviting.

“Most of these places had a very strong presence in the landscape,” says Josephson. “I wanted to bring out that immanent presence. There’s a certain feeling I’m drawn to. That’s how it usually works–I’m just attracted to something. If I feel this really strong presence, I’m happy and I work with it.”

In these prints that “presence” seems to be the sort of thing that has caused people in the past to worship certain forest groves as sacred places, to try to come to terms with a green world at once threatening and sustaining. Fecundity dominates everywhere. In one photograph Josephson takes the viewer right into a flowering shrub that’s losing its petals. The bush is so close that we can admire its intricate interior architecture of branches and twigs, and the abundance of flowers that still cover the bush and litter the ground seems profligate. Or Josephson looks closely at a fern meadow, and we can almost feel the fronds unfurling.

Josephson says he’s still doing the sort of work for which he’s famous, exploring the nature of photography. But then his landscape work isn’t really a departure–these prints do pose questions about the way we see and experience places, or their reproductions. “I think a sense of place is a common denominator in much of my work,” he says. “And I enjoy doing a variety of things.”

Josephson’s landscape prints will be on display at Rhona Hoffman Gallery, 215 W. Superior, through January 4. Gallery hours are 10 to 5:30 Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday; 10 to 7 Thursday; and 11 to 5:30 Saturday. For more information call 951-8828.