Nowhere in America

Diddie Wah Diddie, Doo Wa Ditty, the Big Rock Candy Mountain, the Land of  Cockaigne, Lubberland, Schlaraffenland, and Nowhere share a history that follows a straight, crooked course extending further back in time and covering far more territory than might be thought possible of what today remain most familiar as subjects of simple children’s songs and obscure folk tales. These remarkable places lie within the broader borders of equally remarkable lands that exist far beyond here or anywhere, maybe not even somewhere, in other words, nowhere. Although Nowhere can be found in the imaginative landscape of every land’s folklore, Nowhere in America: The Big Rock Candy Mountain and Other Comic Utopias (University of Illinois Press, l990) proposes to identify and describe its presence in the imaginative landscape of America. 

From its earliest documented appearances in Greek Attic comedies of Teleclides, images and confabulations of a world turned upside down where rivers flow with milk, wine, and whiskey, where hens lay hard-boiled eggs, and clouds rain apple pies flow into the marvelous nooks and crannies of American popular culture. Nowhere in America chronicles the appearance of these marvels in Dogpatch (with L'Abner and the Shmoo); in the blues of Blind Blake, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and Sleepy John Estes; in the repertoire of Bo Diddley, Earl MacDonald’s Original Louisville Jug Band, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, and Haywire Mac McClintock; in the cartoons of Windsor McCay, Walt Kelly, Charles Addams, and Carl Barks; and in the film comedies of Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin, Terry Gilliam, Pee Wee Herman, and Charles Bowers.

In Mad Love (1937), taking note of the cultural and poetic persistence of such extravagant and topsy-turvey imagery ("tree for bread, tree for butter"), Andre Breton observes: "One myth among all others, clear and without harshness, is developed starting with this tree: that of the inexhaustible natural generosity able to see the most diverse human needs . . . How to resist the charm of a garden like this one, where all the trees of a providential type have gathered? . . . The bread tree, the butter tree have called to them the salt tree: a whole frugal lunch is being improvised. How hungry we are!"

That hunger, for plentitude and freedom, is the subject of this book.

On stereo (3D) photography

My first experiments with 3D photography in the late 1990s exclusively used the 35mm format (35mm cameras with a slidebar attachment or with a David White Stereo Realist camera). I entered the world of pinhole photography almost simultaneous with this interest and built my first stereo pinhole camera in 1999.  In addition, around this time I also devised a means of making stereo photograms that I mounted in the conventional (vintage) stereoview card format of 3 1/2” x 7.” To facilitate viewing these cards, I refashioned vintage stereoscopes to fit the width of modern eyeglasses.  

In 2017 I began working with a larger format for stereo photograms (7 1/2” x 7 1/2” square stereo pairs) and modified Charles Wheatstone’s designs for a reflecting stereoscope (1838) that could be used to view there photos. I’ve designed and built a handheld variation on the reflecting stereoscope for viewing these same photograms as side-by-side mounted stereo pairs.  In 2018/2019, this work, in the realms of both cameraless and pinhole photography, has been included in the 57th Carnegie International at the Carnegie Art Museum (Pittsburg, PA) and in a solo exhibition at the Cedarburg Art Museum (Cedarburg, WI).

A selection of my work with stereo (3D) photograms in the vintage stereoview card format has been published in the collection The Concentration of Attention (2019) with an essay on “Stereo Photography and the Art of Hal Rammel” by Steve Schlei.

On cameraless photography

Exposing objects to light as they rest on the surface of light sensitive paper is a picture-taking method that began quite close to the origins of photography itself. It was explored most thoroughly by Anna Atkins to study and document the forms of ferns and algae using cyanotype paper beginning in the 1850s.  As a means of creating less objective and more experimental images Christian Schad made photographs using often very unidentifiable objects and the method was embraced by his contemporaries Man Ray and László Moholy-Nagy. Tristan Tzara coined the terms ‘schadograph’ for Schad’s work and ‘rayogram’ for May Ray’s. When Moholy-Nagy wrote about his experiments he employed the term ‘photogram’ which had already been in use as applied to measuring physical phenomenon.

My father demonstrated the general principles and surprises of  photograms on several occasions when I was his darkroom ‘assistant’ in the 1950s employing anything that might be in reach of the enlarger (e.g. tongs, scissors, lenses) as we finished up a printing session of family photos.  When I inherited his home darkroom in the late 1980s, play with the possibilities of cameraless imagery was at the top of my agenda. My own inclinations have leaned toward utilizing multiple exposures under the enlarger, employing various sorts of transparent material (cliche verre), shifting objects during the exposure time, and so on to enhance the unexpected and ambiguous qualities of form and substance. I prefer the term ‘cameraless’ to distance myself a bit from the expectations and visual assumptions of the photogram’s history and to accommodate the variety of methods I have developed to extend the possibilities of this photographic approach. As with many areas of what is now termed ‘analog’ or wet darkroom’ photography, there is much to be discovered and the world has not embraced digital technology because the old methods have exhausted their potential.  Much remains to be discovered and explored.

On pinhole photography

I began exploring pinhole photography in 1997 when my wife Gina Litherland, gave me Pinhole Photography: Rediscovering a Historic Technique by Eric Renner book for my birthday. A wide variety of types of photography were already well known to me. My father was a photojournalist all his life and I was his darkroom assistant at a very early age, assigned to rock the trays of developing solution. During a partial solar eclipse in the 1950s he vividly demonstrated the principles of pinhole optics as we safely observed the diminishing crescent of solar light. In other words, the basic principles of pinhole photography were well known to me and, additionally, the concept of building a camera that took unique photographs was not at all far removed from the idea of building a unique musical instrument to explore a specific sound world, something I had already been involved with for 20 years.

I've built dozens of cameras over the years from cookie tins and cardboard boxes to more carefully fashioned wooden boxes with a variety of shutter designs and dimensions.  I've used both paper and film for negatives but my strong preference is for paper negatives that may easily produce a positive image simply by making a contact print. I work exclusively in old fashioned darkroom development though contact printing from a digitally produced negative has proven to be a convenient way to edit and duplicate paper negatives.  

While there are many wonderful commercially available pinhole cameras, I am most fond of  the Zero Image 4x5 camera which allows me to take multiple photos (using 4x5 film holders) on a giving photo outing.  Nevertheless, my favored cameras are homemade, two 8" x 10" wooden boxes with a focal distance of roughly 3 1/2."  A refrigerator magnet serves as a shutter on the 'tin roof' of this box. I built both these cameras in the late 1990s and they have yet to fail me though I have not always been up to their standards. I am constantly rewarded by the difficulties and discouragements of this approach to photography. The more that modern life speeds up, the more I feel inclined to slow down and pinhole photography offers ample opportunity to engage with the world at a snail's pace.


On designing and building musical instruments

I began building musical instruments in the mid 1970s inspired by the music of Jesse Fuller, Lou Hazrrison, Lucia Dlugoszewski, and Harry Partch. It became quite clear that inventing instruments included inventing the manner in which they might be played. It was also clear that these intertwined pursuits extend logically into the world of freely improvised music with its profoundly inclusive vision of how all sounds and every sort of unique sound source could be treated musically. My earliest interests were in single-string instruments and various sorts of bowed contraptions.  The amplified palette took many these initial ideas into the realm of electroacoustic music and a multitude of variations on this instrument form have  occupied my activities as an improviser and composer for the past 25 years.

In the 1990s I wrote frequently for the journal Experimental Music Instruments and taught musical instrument invention at the Experimental Sound Studio (Chicago) and at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

In 2012, 14 of my original musical instruments (including 4 amplified palettes) were added to the permanent collection of the National Music Museum at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, South Dakota.

On Penumbra Music

I founded the CD label Penumbra Music in 1996 to release my first solo compact disc of music performed on the amplified palette, an electroacoustic instrument I first designed and built in 1992. Subsequent Penumbra Music releases featured acoustic improvisations with Van’s Peppy Syncopators (The Devil's in the Details and Van's Peppy Syncopators with violinist Terri Kapsalis and guitarist John Corbett) and a studiophonic set of works in collaboration with sound artist Lou Mallozzi (Whole or by the Slice). In the late 1990s the label expanded to include solo and duo CDs by Matt Turner, Michael Zerang, Raymond Strid, Steve Nelson-Raney, Gary Verkade, and others. In the past ten years  the label returned as a means of releasing my own solo music and collaborations with Matt Turner (Fractures & Phantoms) and Chris Burns (Scrawl). The catalog also expanded to include 7” 45rpm singles (Lost Data and Song of the Interocyter) and a 10” duo record (As on a Pivot of Air) with Matt Turner. In 2016, Penumbra Music released a 25 year retrospective book and CD collection: The Amplified Palette: A History in Pictures that includes an introductory essay by composer Christopher Burns and 2 CDs of previously unreleased solo music.

In 2013, the archives of Penumbra Music (including recordings, correspondence, reviews, original artwork, etc.) were added to the permanent collection of the Creative Audio Archive at the Experimental Sound Studio in Chicago, Illinois.

Cartoons and Comics

“Aero first appeared in my sketch pad one evening in March of 1979, a pointed little stick figure in the midst of more agitated automatic drawing.  Aero reemerged the next evening in full and present form, a shard of bare paper carved out by more densely inked and jagged lines, a still and silent observer of crosshatched frenetic action.  Within days he had a name, Aero, a most appropriate identity: inquisitive, forward-looking, desirous and omnidirectional, simultaneously transparent and opaque.  All my thirty years of fascination with the characters and panels of the comics, my  hours of devotion to the exploits of Little Lulu, Henry, and Smokey Stover, suddenly had legs, and, best yet, an insider’s eye on where new adventures might lead.”

- Hal Rammel, from “Aero Through the Ages,” 2009Publications:

  • Aero Into the Aether (Grafton: Penumbra Music & Books, 2014)

  • Conversations in the Aether (Grafton: Penumbra Music & Books, 2014)

  • Aero: At Sea (Grafton: Penumbra Music & Books, 2012). A visual palindrome in five pages.

  • Aero: an Unfolding Adventure (Woodland Pattern Book Center, 2010).  Three page comic held inside 8 1/2" x 11" envelope.

  • Aerosophical Sketchbook (Grafton, WI: Penumbra, 2013).  Illustrated commentary on Paul Klee's Pedagogical Sketchbook from 1923.

  • Aero Through the Ages (Chicago: Corbett vs. Dempsey, 2010).  This retrospective of Hal Rammel's work as a cartoonist includes published work (Aero Into the Aether from 1983 and Song of an Aeropteryx, 1985) along with previously never before seen comix and cartoons.

  • Song of an Aeropteryx (Chicago: Black Swan Press, 1980).

  • Aero Into the Aether (Chicago: Black Swan Press, 1980).


“Consider the oracle that Arthur Rimbaud stated in To a Reason : "Arriving from always, you'll go away everywhere." Could this be Aero, the multidirectional creature whose limbs and extremities, like the five fingers of his hand and their five thousand lines, are arrows ? Since almost forever and a little bit everywhere, the arrow seems to emerge from nowhere and everywhere, preferably from the hand of Hal Rammel which, if it holds a pen, will be a White Wagtail feather plume, so that he can intervene as he sees fit, nonchalantly, cheerfully, and frolic inside and outside the square that is the mode of intervention assigned to him – the cartoon. In essence, Aero, the uncontested champion of casualness, does volts.”

- Alexandre Pierrepont, from “The Redoubtable Revelations of Casualness,” 2014


The entire archive of Aero comics from 1979 until 2014 (including books, published and unpublished cartoons, original drawings, reviews, correspondence, and ephemera) is now part of the permanent archive of The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museuma research library of American cartoons and comic art affiliated with Ohio State University in. Columbus, Ohio.

Kaleidophone studies

The term kaleidophone was coined by Charles Wheatstone in 1827 to describe a "philosophical toy" he had devised to study complex vibratory patterns in a metal rod fixed at one end. Wheatstone attached a glass bead at the free end of the rod and illuminated it with a light source. When the rod is struck or bowed the patterns formed vary according to the direction, strength, and manner in which it is activated. It is possible to produce relatively even or graceful ellipses or agitate it into very complicated oscillations by striking several times at right angles to the original input. My facsimile of the kaleidophone is photographed with a digital camera at varying shutter speeds and illuminated by a variety of LED flashlights. The photo are cropped but otherwise not manipulated digitally. A selection of these photographs are reproduced in the book Overtones in Space & Time (Penumbra Music, 2018).

The Art of Papercutting

Apart from having my silhouette cut out from black paper in a booth at the Illinois State Fair in the early 1950s, my first encounters with traditional papercutting came through several works of papel picado I collected in the early 80s. In 2010 I acquired some pieces of amate bark paper and aspired to find my own way into these materials and this tradition extending my personal vocabulary of forms and sharing my high regard for the animate flora and fauna essential to the papel picado tradition.

I enjoy the subtractive nature of papercutting in which carefully shaped cutouts determine the final image by what remains. I employ the formal symmetry basic to traditional papel picado and by constantly shifting the axis of symmetry I build a coherent composition. My papercuts are impromptu constructions built upon structural ideas of mirroring, echoing, rhythmic repetition, motivic variation, paralleling, and so on.

The concentrated dynamics of these constrained forms cut from a single piece of paper, inescapably attached to one another across its surface, are the wonderful challenge of papel picado. In 2010, the hours I spent cutting these bark paper shapes were perfectly complimented by my rediscovery of the extraordinary recordings of Fletcher Henderson and Don Redman from the 1930s and 40s. Within the duration of a 78rpm recording (roughly 2 1/2 minutes), these composers took their ensemble of musicians into a vivid landscape of dramatic interplay. The titles of my papercuts pay homage to their brilliant story-telling, bursting with a multitude of voices in a explosive forum for argument and accord in the pressure-cooker of everyday life.