Friday, February 24, 2012

Biker Trash, Raw Tomatoes and an Axis Bold As Love

"Only two things that money can't buy/That's true love and homegrown tomatoes"--Guy Clark

The foreground of the book's cover features what may be a madman, in a knit cap and goatee--his face exploding in assaultive silliness.  Just over his shoulder, transparent but with color contrasting to the general black and white, another shot of the man's face retreats.  In this one page movie, we see a man's cantankerous humor and the toll it takes on his failing body.  That ghost on his shoulder looks like he's hit a wall, and the wall hit back.  On one level, that's the story of Raw Tomatoes, a new book by photographer Alisha Case.  That's the plot of a story that refuses to be reduced to plot.

Raw Tomatoes is Case's tribute to her stepfather, Roy Allen Wogoman.  The subtitle of the book is "Living and Dying with Amyloidosis," which is the rare and poorly understood condition that took Wogoman's life.  Case shot, compiled and wrote the book to raise awareness about this disease that causes the body to generate toxic levels of proteins, a disease Wogoman may have had for 23 years before he was correctly diagnosed.  Decreasing the chance that such misdiagnosis may happen to others is just the start of the things this book achieves.

More than anything, Raw Tomatoes, makes an impression as a book about love.  The title comes from the story Case tells of Wogoman giving her sixteen tomatoes for her 16th birthday.  He'd just started dating her mother, and this simple act went a long way toward winning the girl's heart (she ate those tomatoes in only three days).

But the stories are one thing; what makes the book unforgettable is the way Case captures love with her camera.  It's in the puppy-eyed happiness when Wogoman cuddles with Case's mother Sharon, and it's in the sad light in his eyes while he watches his wife give him dialysis.  It's also in the way--in more than one shot--he rests his hand on the head of what looks to be the world's most contented lap dog.

The love's also in the way Case captures Wogoman's passions.  One of my favorite pictures glimpses five matchbox-sized Harley-Davidson's Wogoman keeps in a china cabinet next to a toy train.  One gorgeous black and white shows him deep focus working in his garage, a 1940s Ford Coupe in the foreground and a three wheel Harley he dubbed his "trike" in the foreground.  The trike sports a novelty license plate that reads "Biker Trash." Another photo shows Roy and Sharon Wogoman on their wedding day, embracing on the favorite Harley he had to sell when he got sick, both of them looking serenely satisfied in their leathers.

Perhaps the most exquisite series of pictures are also the most painful.  It's a sequence of ten photographs revolving around Roy's daily dialysis treatments.  Sharon's blue-gloved hands fix the I.V. in his weathered, tattooed arm.  Red and blue clasps separate a tube carrying clear liquid from another carrying blood.  In the context of this ritual, the colors of these clasps on this torture device transcend their reality, almost looking like hearts, echoing the love of the man and woman fighting this disease together.

Appropriately, the book's love also extends to other collaborations. Highlights include Sharon Wogoman's beautiful photographs of Roy standing proud with his biker best friend as well as a snowy portrait of the couple's backyard.  Sister Rachel Kimbrough contributes two courageous poems which enhance their accompanying photographs.  As powerful in its way as the dialysis sequence are two pictures of Wogoman working in his shop accompanied by the poem that names the pages "Fighters."

Case pretties nothing up here.  She deals the cards as straight as you can imagine this road-worn fighter would have had her do.  In fact, it's not hard to imagine Roy Wogoman insisting on that face he's making going on that cover.  It also figures he'd let that cover show the toll of the disease.  He certainly opened himself up to a series of unflinching shots inside.

Case's book reveals a humble man struggling to live with dignity in the face of a merciless disease.  Though that disease may have won the final battle, these pages show Wogoman won an all-important war. His spirit speaks from these pages, and, though it has a lot of other things to say (about working class pride, about self reliance, about the very definition of bravery), its boldest message models how to give and receive love.

To order the book: