THOMASTON – For Yousuf Karsh, the first image of North America came from the uncomfortable confines of a crowded ocean liner.

The year was 1925, and he was a 17-year-old Armenian refugee arriving on a winter day at the frozen docks of Halifax. He had limited language skills, but with the help of an uncle, he managed to make a life in Quebec.

Uncle Nakash worked as a photographer, and took his nephew under his wing. He gave Karsh his first camera and sent him out into the world to learn and explore through the lens.

Karsh, who died in 2002 in Boston, became a famous photographer, excelling in the field of black-and-white portraiture. His best-known portrait is of Winston Churchill, taken in 1941 when the British prime minister visited Ottawa.

The portrait — a pugnacious Churchill scowling at the camera, one hand tucked on his hip — appeared on the cover of Life magazine, became one of the most widely produced images in the history of photography, and made Karsh famous.

With that image — and hundreds of others of 20th-century cultural titans such as Ernest Hemingway, Robert Frost and Muhammad Ali — Karsh distinguished himself for capturing the essence of his subject.

With his influence, he evolved portrait photography from a technical pursuit into something entirely artistic.

A portfolio of 15 silver gelatin prints, most measuring 20 by 24 inches and including the Churchill portrait, is on view at the newly opened Haynes Gallery in Thomaston, which operates in a restored 19th-century, Federal-style ship captain’s home on Main Street.

Karsh printed this portfolio in 1981, and all prints are signed and numbered.

Gallery owner Gary Haynes bought the Karsh portfolio a few years ago after it had been in the collection of a major U.S. bank. He is offering the portfolio for sale as part of this exhibition. Priced individually, the portraits range from $10,000 for a 1948 portrait of Albert Einstein to $25,000 for the Churchill.

“I bought them to sell them,” said Haynes, who collects and sells mostly American realism paintings.

EARLY PROMISE

The Karsh portraits are significant because of the stature of the subjects and the inventiveness of the photographer. Karsh got his start as an apprentice to his uncle. He showed promise and commitment, and his uncle arranged for Karsh to travel to Boston in the late 1920s to work and study with the portrait photographer John H. Garo, who also happened to be Armenian.

Garo helped form many of the technical foundations of Karsh’s development, and also introduced him to classical learning. Karsh thrived in Garo’s company, which included the leading intellectuals and cultural contributors of the Boston scene.

Karsh was on his way. He spent three years with Garo, then returned to Canada to open his own commercial studio in Ottawa.

Among those who visited the studio in Ottawa in the early 1930s were Dr. Rupert and Estelle Esdale, a local couple. Karsh shot a series of portraits, including single poses by Estelle.

The Esdale’s daughter, Gay Schueler, spends her summers in Camden. When she learned about the show at the Haynes Gallery, she took the photo of her mom off the wall and brought it down to the gallery. Haynes immediately asked if he could include it in the show.

The Esdale portrait sits on a mantel in the gallery, just below Hemingway.

“She would be thrilled to be on view with all the greats of the 20th century,” Schueler said, noting that her mother shares wall space with Georgia O’Keeffe, Pablo Picasso and George Bernard Shaw.

In an autobiography, Karsh readily acknowledges the impact of the Churchill photo.

“The world’s reception of that photograph — which captured public imagination as the epitome of the indomitable spirit of the British people — changed my life,” he wrote.

It might never have happened if not for Karsh’s gall.

Karsh arranged to photograph the British leader after a speech at the Canadian capital. He set up his lights in the speaker’s chamber, and turned them on when Churchill entered the room. The lights startled Churchill, who was unaware that a photographer had been retained to capture the event.

After a few awkward moments, Churchill consented to a pose and lit a cigar. Karsh wanted Churchill without the cigar.

He writes, “I held out an ashtray, but he would not dispose of it. I went back to my camera and made sure that everything was all right technically. I waited; he continued to chomp vigorously at his cigar. I waited. Then I stepped toward him and, without premeditation, but ever so respectfully, I said, ‘Forgive me, sir,’ and plucked the cigar out of his mouth. the time I got back to my camera, he looked so belligerent he could have devoured me. It was at that instant that I took the photograph.”

The scowl on Churchill’s face — the indignity of giving up his smoke to a pushy photographer — became his visual trademark, and it was formed largely through the Karsh image.

APPRECIATING GREATNESS

Haynes, the gallery owner, appreciates Karsh’s ability to achieve brilliance.

“As an artist and a collector, I like great craft. I appreciate greatness in any pursuit. I just like people who do it better than you ever could imagine anyone doing it, and Karsh is that guy,” Haynes said.

Haynes, who considers himself a Sunday painter, has been a serious art collector for about 30 years. He made his money in the advertising business in Nashville, and rolled his business success into his passion for art.

He was drawn to Maine by Andrew Wyeth. Haynes went to art school in the 1960s. At the time, abstract expressionism was the popular trend, yet Wyeth was accomplishing some of his best work as a devoted realist painter. In addition to admiring Wyeth’s willingness to buck the trend, Haynes appreciated the artist’s sense of design, medium and subject matter.

“I moved to Maine because of him,” Haynes said. “I wanted to see what he painted; I wanted to see what he saw.”

Haynes even went so far as to rent a house in Cushing near the Olson House, where Wyeth made his best-known work, “Christina’s World.”

Among the Karsh photographs, Haynes is also showing and selling dozens of paintings and drawings by Wyeth, Rockwell Kent and many contemporary painters. The exhibition is on view through Oct. 23.

“Everything is for sale,” said Haynes, who owns a home in Owls Head and plans to operate the Thomaston gallery on a seasonal basis.

“Why sell it? So I can buy something better. The beauty of having a great collection is enjoying it. putting this out on view, I get to talk about it and look at it every day.” 

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

bkeyes@pressherald.com