In fall 1944, Wood returned to Cleveland and entered the greatest creative period of his life.
Manning was already pregnant with their first child, conceived before he left for South Bend. But they agreed not to marry out of fear that it would place too much restriction on their relationship.
Still Wood had no idea how to survive financially as an artist and sought advice from Patchen, a poet and Northeast Ohio native.
“The answer to how I make a living is that mostly I don’t,” Patchen wrote in an Oct. 2, 1944, letter to Wood. “My books never bring much in but chicken feed.”
That didn’t stop Wood from trying. He worked for two years to develop a magazine that would publish some of Patchen’s never-before-seen poems. But when Wood criticized Patchen’s work, the poems were published elsewhere.
About a year after Manning gave birth to their son Denis, the family traveled to Mexico, where Wood hoped to finish his first novel.
But something else happened there too. Wood became captivated by the indigenous tribes in the small villages surrounding Acapulco, Cuernavaca and San Cristóbal de las Casas. They inspired him to take his first photos.
Among them was a portrait of a small barefoot Mexican girl, her hair in a braid and carrying a basket in front of a wooden door. It became Wood’s contribution to The Family of Man, the 1955 exhibit that brought together 503 photos from 68 countries and included artists such as Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange.
When Wood returned to Cleveland in 1947, he had a renewed sense of self — even after Doubleday rejected his novel.
He and Manning were preparing for their second child. The family moved a few times and eventually settled into a small, two-bedroom apartment in Lakeview Terrace, one of the nation’s first federally funded housing projects. Located on the near West Side between Whiskey Island and Cleveland Memorial Shoreway, its bootstrapping residents and industrial backdrop were a perfect environment for Wood.
It’s not clear which led him to Scovill first — Wood’s love for jazz or his belief that art should depict raw human suffering and passion — but the East Side neighborhood very quickly became his workshop.
“When my father was interested in something, he just went straight to the source,” says Wood’s now-69-year-old son Chris, a former librarian in the Cleveland Public Library’s downtown history department who donated Wood’s photographs in 2009.
Wood spent time in Scovill establishing relationships with residents and photographing them with a small 35 mm Contax II rangefinder camera. Without the advantages of modern zoom lenses, Wood needed to get close to his subjects both figuratively and literally.
He struck up conversations with women hanging their laundry out to dry and men shuffling outside the local barbershop. Along the way, Wood snapped intimate portraits of everyday life. In a testament to the moment, his pictures were rarely cropped, edited or cut once they were printed.
“The moments he was capturing were very everyday, something that maybe the regular passerby may not notice as they were moving through the city,” says Adam Jaenke, Cleveland subject department library assistant of the Cleveland Public Library’s Photograph Collection. “He used his camera and his vision to find these lost moments and connect with the subject in certain ways.”
In his first year as a photographer in 1947, Wood placed one photograph in the Cleveland Museum of Art’s May Show. By 1949, he had won first prize.
“He always said, ‘You cannot photograph the middle class,’ ” his son Chris recalls. “Middle class people have body armor, psychological armor, and they don’t want their inner-selves to be seen by a photographer.”
Instead, Wood captured children playing in the dirt, grown men gathered in conversations on street corners, two small girls carrying a block of ice home from the grocery and the silhouette of a man staring out of a shop window from behind a shoe shine sign.
“He took pictures of people who were open,” Chris says, “people who could respond, people whose lives weren’t
constrained by middle class attitudes, fears and neuroses.”
At the same time, Wood began writing reviews of local jazz musicians for the Cleveland Press and Downbeat Magazine, and made a steady income as an advertising agent.
In between client meetings, he’d duck into Discount Records and Publix Book Mart, returning home with a stack of records and novels under each arm.
At night, after Manning and their children were in bed, he hung blankets over the kitchen door and windows facing Lake Erie to block out the light. Wood worked diligently, printing photos from the previous day in the kitchen and washing each print in the bathtub filled with chemicals.
“We’d wake up and the strips would be hanging from clothespins,” recalls Wood’s eldest son, Denis, a cartographer and author living in North Carolina.
In 1951, his photograph of the young black girl holding a white doll was one of six first prize awards in American Photography magazine’s 31st annual photography contest, which drew more than 5,000 entries from almost every state and 30 countries.
Two years later, he made his first foray into film with a documentary about Cleveland’s streetcars. Drawn to the idea that streetcars were on the verge of extinction, he wanted to preserve their importance. It earned first place at the prestigious Edinburgh Film
Festival in Scotland.
“He was going to be a poet and a photographer and an artist,” says Denis. “He wasn’t going to be one of these drudges.”