Te Papa discovers the original negative of the famous Michael Joseph Savage portrait



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This is one of the most famous photographs of New Zealand, a black and white head shot of the first Labor 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 whether the original negative still existed. But this month, a Te Papa curator discovered the original from the famous photo.

The original negative of an iconic portrait of Michael Joseph Savage was discovered in Te Papa

Stuff

The original negative of an iconic portrait of Michael Joseph Savage was discovered in Te Papa

The papa curator of photography Athol Macredie discovered the original negative in the Spencer Digby archive held by the museum and includes tens of thousands of negatives of images taken by the studio from the 1930s to 1960s.

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McCredie said he had long suspected that the Spencer Digby archive could hold the original of the iconic image, but only when he began actively researching the archive today did he compile the clues.

In the register book of the studio, he found an item titled “wild” that led to the discovery of the negative, tucked in a tightly packed drawer.

“We have seen the image reproduced so many times, but never the negative – this is the original of all the image, the original all the prints came from,” Macredy said.

Michael Joseph Savage carrying furniture in the first state house in New Zealand.  John Alexander Lee is also visible.

Alexander Turnbull Library / Stuff

Michael Joseph Savage carrying furniture in the first state house in New Zealand. John Alexander Lee is also visible.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had 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 small smile and eyes that twinkled and connected directly with viewers, this wild portrait has long been regarded as the embodiment of the first Labor government brand-friendly, friendly, trustworthy and self-sacrificing,” says Robinson.

“Locating his portrait behind the desk of Jacinda Ardern is a sign that she is committed to the mission he started in the 1930s to rid the country of poverty and unemployment.”

Photographic negatives of the era are often made with flammable materials, and they must be preserved in specialized storage facilities.

The Spencer Digby archive is preserved in special cool stores, in two degrees Celsius.

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