It is one of the most famous New Zealand photographs, a black and white image of the head of the first Labor Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage.
The iconic portrait hung in thousands of homes in the 1930s and 1940s and is now visible in Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s office.
Until now, historians have never known whether the original negative still exists. But this month, curator Te Papa discovered the original famous photo.
The curator of the photograph, Te Papa Athol McCredie, discovered the original negative in the Spencer Digby archive, which is owned by the museum and contains tens of thousands of negatives of images taken by the studio from the 1930s to the 1960s.
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McCredie said he had long suspected that Spencer Digby’s archive might contain the original iconic image, but only after actively exploring the archive this year did he put the tracks together.
In the studio’s registration book, he found a record called “Savage,” which led to the discovery of a negative tucked away in a tightly packed drawer.
“We’ve seen an image reproduced so many times, but never negative – that’s the origin of all these images, the origin of all these prints comes from,” McCredie said.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has a portrait in her office and was prominent in her speech to the nation announcing the Covid-19 alert system, which Massey University political communications expert Claire Robinson said was a deliberate exercise of the brand.
“With his mild smile and eyes that shone and met in direct contact with the audience, this portrait of Savage has long been seen as the embodiment of the first Labor government, which is friendly, indulgent, trustworthy and dedicated,” says Robinson.
“Placing his portrait behind Jacinda Ardern’s desk is a sign that she has committed to the mission he embarked on in the 1930s to rid the country of poverty and unemployment.”
Photographic negatives of this period are commonly made of flammable materials and must be stored in specialized storage facilities.
The Spencer Digby archive is stored in special cold stores at a temperature of two degrees Celsius.