The young black girl stands tall with her face turned toward the sky. 

A doll rests in the crook of her one arm as she braces against a wooden building with the other. Her white dress falls just above her knees while trash and rubble litter the fitful ground beneath her thin, slip-on shoes. 

Her lips are pursed. Her brow furrowed. 

Perhaps she’s calling out for someone or pausing in prayer, but something seems to be troubling her. Her fingers strain across the baby’s back as if they’re clutching everything she holds dear.

On the other side of the lens: Jasper Wood, an anarchist, jazz aficionado and emerging artist. 

In the late 1940s, Wood found inspiration along the 2-mile stretch of Scovill Avenue, a poor, mostly black swath of Cleveland’s Central neighborhood. The city’s African-American population had been growing rapidly, eclipsing 85,000 at the beginning of the decade. But neighborhoods like Scovill were starting to buckle under the weight of doubled-up families living in dilapidated houses alongside jazz clubs and storefront churches.

Wood felt a connection to this place and its residents. Like the Farm Security Administration photographers during the Great Depression, he divined humanity in their struggle. He found truth in the notion that life is best lived when one is free from the restraints of societal norms. He clamored for the authenticity of those who existed on society’s fringes. 

“It is only of the poor of the slums or of the far away primitive that I can get the photographs I want,” said the 28-year-old Wood in a 1949 Plain Dealer article. “These people have a rhythmic quality which the rest of us have lost.”

Relying entirely on natural light in an effort to capture what he called “the moment of full responsibility” — the point when the photographer and the subject are forever locked in a symbiotic relationship — Wood garnered a measure of local and national fame. 

By 1957, his photographs had earned nine first prizes in the Cleveland Museum of Art’s May Show, the annual showcase of the best local artists. His work was exhibited in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. His photography earned first-prize honors in American Photography magazine and toured the world with The Family of Man, an ambitious photographic project curated by Edward Steichen, director of the Museum of Modern Art’s department of photography.

But then, after a decade of work and at the height of his notoriety, Wood gave it all up. He stopped taking photographs entirely.

Jasper Wood Man Smoking in Front of Wall

“It is only of the poor of the slums or of the far away primitive that I can get the photographs I want,” said the 28-year-old Jasper Wood in a 1949 Plain Dealer article. “These people have a rhythmic quality which the rest of us have lost.”

Top: Man Smoking in Front of Wall 1947-1955

Right: Montana Taylor Playing the Piano 1950-1954

Jasper Wood Montana Taylor Playing the Piano

Now, nearly 60 years later, his work is being resurrected by the Cleveland Public Library, which pulled from more than 790 of his photographs for an exhibit at the Canopy Collective Gallery Oct. 28 through Nov. 14. The showcase hopes to highlight Wood’s humanistic approach to an effervescent city now on the rise.

“I get the sense that he lived sort of on a great adventure,” says Brian Meggitt, Cleveland subject department librarian of the Cleveland Public Library’s Photograph Collection. “Part of that adventure had to do with never settling down into any one particular creative avenue.”

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Jasper Wood wanted to change the world. He wanted his art to matter.

The son of a strict southern conservative who made his living as a traveling advertising salesman, Wood found enlightenment in music and books, especially the disillusioned, revolutionary writings of James Joyce, Henry Miller and Ernest Hemingway.

In 1938, as a 17-year-old senior at Cleveland Heights High School, Wood acquired the rights to publish 1,000 copies of Hemingway’s narration for The Spanish Earth, a propaganda film depicting the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. In his introduction, Wood argued that The Spanish Earth was Hemingway’s greatest contribution to society. 

“He gave his all,” wrote Wood. “And we can’t really give our all but once.” 

The statement became a guiding principle as Wood set out to discover his own authenticity through art. 

From 1939 to 1941, he studied creative writing at Cleveland College and Adelbert College of Western Reserve University. As a student, he wrote and produced a play along with several short stories and poems that aimed to capture the struggle of everyday life. But Wood never had any intentions of graduating, taking on a series of short-term jobs and ultimately landing in the advertising department for The Plain Dealer in fall 1943. 

A coworker introduced Wood to Nancy Manning, the co-owner of Euclid Avenue’s Ten Thirty Gallery. He was smitten, but she was skeptical of the wiry young man who talked like Hemingway and went to great lengths to persuade her through poetry.

When Wood moved to South Bend, Indiana, the following summer for a better job in advertising, he wrote Manning nearly every day in an attempt to maintain her affection. He also professed his desire to write a novel worthy of his literary paramours D.H. Lawrence, Gertrude Stein and Kenneth Patchen.

“No matter what these people do or did it mattered,” wrote Wood. “It mattered to the whole world.”

He lamented colleagues for pouring themselves into mindless jobs that required little creativity or joy. 

“I am constricted by something horrible,” he wrote to Manning. “Money, money, money and the habits and ways of all the people about us who have been conditioned to it — yes, even ourselves.”

He referred to his colleagues as “fascists of the mind and heart and soul.” And although he had quickly been promoted to $33 a month, Wood was unhappy.

“What is there that makes men fight and kill and struggle and sell out for money,” he wrote Manning in another letter. “I don’t see any sense in it myself. But then I have never lived in poverty.

“But those men in poverty aren’t fighting for money,” he continued. “They are fighting for a chance to live, and god-damn it darling I want to help them.”

Wood was desperate to return to his roots. To him, work was nothing more than a means to an end. But that end meant he was incapable of producing great work.

“I will fight to the end to keep form [sic] becoming one of the living dead,” Wood wrote in a 1944 letter to his aunt. “The number must be kept down if the world is ever to become a good and vital place to live one’s life.”

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.”

By 1954, Wood’s home had become a gathering place for a film society that showed avant-garde European films followed by lengthy discussions. 

His insatiable energy for the arts drew others to him. Wood established friendships with influentials such as Henry Sayles Francis, curator of painting and prints at the Cleveland Museum of Art, and Nico Jacobellis, the owner of the Heights Art Theater.

Younger artists such as Richard Alderson, a college dropout working at Discount Records downtown, were interested in Wood’s ideologies. At the store, Wood and Alderson often had lengthy discussions about Hemingway, jazz and the importance of seeking out art wherever one could find it.

“I had the same kind of questing personality,” says Alderson. “I suppose I was looking for answers and Jasper supplied them.”

A self-proclaimed anarchist, atheist and free speech advocate, Wood espoused the importance of freedom from restrictions. But in the same breath, he’d be inflexible in his opinions on art. 

“He was contentious,” says Alderson. “He would start an argument with anybody about artistic subjects. He liked unique loners — painters and artists who didn’t belong to a clique or group. They stood their own ground and went their own way.”

When famed New York artist Edward Steichen acquired one of Wood’s photographs for the The Family of Man in 1955, he encouraged Wood to head to New York.

“[My father] believed he should have a vocation and an avocation,” says Chris. “He didn’t believe in putting them together and try to make a living in art photography.”

Instead, Wood plunged headlong into work. Although primarily a loner, Wood found a partner in Carl Malmquist and opened the Malmquist and Wood advertising art studio in 1955. 

By 1957, the firm was doing so much business that the family no longer qualified to live in the projects where they had built a modest life. It should have been a joyous moment — a realization of the American Dream. Yet, when Wood was forced to relocate to a three-bedroom apartment in Cleveland Heights, his life changed forever.

In their home, the portrait by self-taught Cleveland painter William Sommer was replaced with African sculpture and abstract expressionist paintings by Adja Yunkers and Fred Mitchell. Simple meat-and-potato dinners gave way to gourmet feasts with a bottle of wine for every meal.

“He lost life as it should be lived,” says Denis. “He became a bourgeois gentleman.”

Wood lost himself to the very things that he opposed. 

After years spent chasing the notion that he must constantly create to remain authentic, Wood never picked up professional photography again.

“He thought artists were not complete human beings because they’re so involved with their art they don’t have time to be family men or good wage earners,” recalls Alderson. “Jasper was rebelling against that side of the artistic personality.”

While Wood no longer created art, his passion for those early artistic values never wavered. His film society expanded to show works at the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Masonic Temple. Success as an art dealer meant trips to New York to visit Alderson, and to Mexico, where Wood felt a certain freedom surrounded by indigenous tribes living off the land.

When his friend Nico Jacobellis was arrested on obscenity charges in 1959 for showing Louis Malle’s The Lovers at the Heights Art Theater, Wood formed a nonprofit group devoted to opposing censorship. 

Similarly, Wood used his power as a community organizer and arts supporter to aid bookstore owner James Lowell and beat poet d.a. levy when they were arrested in 1966 for the distribution of obscene material at coffeehouse poetry readings. Wood’s organization pledged $11,000 for their defense, bailed levy out of jail and hosted a fundraiser at Western Reserve University with the help of anarchistic rock group The Fugs and poet Allen Ginsberg.

But even the days playing community activist were short lived. 

Wood closed Malmquist and Wood for an early retirement and sold almost everything he owned at an open house. 

“I want to start a fresh life,” he said in an Aug. 2, 1970 Plain Dealer article. “I’m un-retiring at the age of 50. I’m going to read Thoreau’s journal, and the journals of Alexander Herzen, and write, probably.”

Manning and Wood, who finally married, purchased a house in San Cristobal. They lived in Mexico until 1973, returning to be closer to family. 

Wood went back to work as an advertising agent for a small local company. Eventually they relocated to Raleigh, North Carolina, to be near Denis.

By the time Wood was in his 70s, the great American novels had been replaced with hours of watching television, especially golf. The record player was sold. The speakers, once blaring jazz, became a long-silent pedestal for what sculptures he had left in his possession.

Wood died in 2002. His wife died six  years later.

“He is somebody who did many things,” says Denis. “And when they were done, they were done.” 

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