Faces from the past: the long search for pictorial identities

WHEN Janet and Sam Cullen bought a collection of early Aboriginal photographs to stop it leaving the country in early 2004, the couple had no idea their purchase was the beginning of a nine-year quest to identify the people in the pictures.

Over that time, a team of historians and local elders have slowly pieced together snippets of the indigenous men and women the German photographer John William Lindt photographed in Grafton in the 1870s.

They have even uncovered several likely living descendants.

It was an article in the Herald in May 2004 that first alerted Mrs Cullen to a collection of Lindt's Australian Aborigines photographs that were to be auctioned in London.

A phone bid followed a few hours later and the Cullens became the owners of the largest and most complete Lindt collection, 37 images.

While the pictures, many of which are held by state libraries, helped to build Lindt's international career, the individuals in the photographs remained unnamed and unknown.

''That's always been an interest to us - who are these people?'' said Mr Cullen, 82, who gave the series to the Grafton Regional Gallery eight years ago. ''I thought they deserved some dignity and recognition.''

The Cullens, along with historians, local elders and, more recently, a journalist from the ABC, had a difficult task ahead of them. Their only clues to the subject's identities were a few English names - King Charley, King Harry of Swan Creek - inscribed on breastplates in several pictures, and a pencil inscription - Mary-Ann of Ulmarra - on the back of another Lindt photograph held by the NSW State Library.

''Trying to find a connection to a person living today has been quite difficult,'' said the historian Ken Orchard, who conducted some of the initial research.

It was another historian, Nola Mackey, who made the first major discovery - the death certificate of King Harry.

It was also Ms Mackey who found a likely living female descendent of Mary-Ann of Ulmarra, a Clarence Valley local named Debby Taylor, who will feature, along with the Cullens, in ABC-TV's Australian Story on Monday night.

''When I look at the photograph of Mary-Ann now, especially the really big print, I can actually see some of my relations, you know, female relations,'' Ms Taylor told the program.

A local elder, Irene Daley, said the search for information on the people in the Lindt photographs had also unearthed details about the ancestors of other locals.

''Lots of people are finding little connections,'' said Ms Daley, the mother of country musician Troy Cassar-Daley.

''The whole community has benefited from having these pictures back home.''

The Cullens have also gained from the experience, and hope to continue their search for answers.

''[But] I'm not sure we've got another nine years to work on it,'' Mr Cullen said.

This story Faces from the past: the long search for pictorial identities first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.