It is one of New Zealand’s most famous photographs, a black and white head shot of the first Labour prime minister, Michael Joseph Savage.
The iconic portrait hung in thousands of homes in the 1930s and 40s and is visible today in the office of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
Until now, historians have never known if the original negative still existed. But this month, a Te Papa curator discovered the original of the famous photo.
Te Papa curator of photography Athol McCredie discovered the original negative in the Spencer Digby archive which is held by the museum and comprises tens of thousands of negatives of images taken by the studio from the 1930s to 1960s.
* Election 2020: Do politicians’ social shares give us a glimpse into their lives – or are they just a political ploy?
* All about Eve: Iconic works by revered sculptor Rodin feature at Waikato Museum exhibition
* Tick. Tick podcast: The subtle and not-so-subtle ways politicians are wooing you
McCredie said he had long suspected the Spencer Digby archive might hold the original of the iconic image, but it was only when he began actively researching the archive this year that he put the clues together.
In the studio’s register book, he found an entry titled “Savage” which led to the discovery of the negative, tucked in a tightly-packed drawer.
“We’ve seen the image reproduced so many times, but never the negative – this is the origin of all those image, the original all those prints came from,” McCredie said.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has the portrait in her office and it was prominent in the background of her address to the nation announcing the Covid-19 Alert Level system, which Massey University Political communications expert Claire Robinson said was a deliberate branding exercise.
“With his slight smile and eyes that twinkled and connected directly with viewers, this Savage portrait has long been regarded as the embodiment of the first Labour government brand–friendly, benevolent, trustworthy and self-sacrificing,” Robinson says.
“Locating his portrait behind Jacinda Ardern’s desk is a sign that she is committed to the mission he started back in the 1930s to rid the country of poverty and unemployment.”
Photographic negatives of this era are commonly made with flammable materials, and must be kept in specialised storage facilities.
The Spencer Digby Archive is kept in special cool stores, at two degrees Celsius.