Gaming In The Shelfie Era


Photography has been a personal and professional interest of mine for more than twenty years. One particular area of photography that has long fascinated me is frontier photography of the United States. I was turned on to the period in the 1973 classic Wisconsin Death Trip by Michael Lesy which frames a late 19th-century town’s life in photos ranging from the deeply personal to the macabre. Given the complexity and expense of early photography, I’ve always thought of the personal, logistical and financial choices made in people capturing images in the late 19th through early 20th century.

Photographs of American frontier people and their possessions have always held a big pull for me. In the photo at top (from the Nebraska State Historical Society’s Prairie Settlement collection) a family has chosen to hire a photographer to document them on the new frontier. Aside from the family in the foreground, the photo is filled with possessions. What the family owns occupies more than three-quarters of the photo — land, cattle, horses, mules, hogs, wagons and a prominently placed piano right in the middle of the family. So large are the family’s holdings the photographer has needed to climb to the top of a hill or perch on a ladder to take it all in with a shot taken from a godlike point of view from above. The photo conveys much including survival and success not only with the portrait of the family itself but in the wider portrait defining the family by what they own.


A picture of another Nebraskan family from the same period (above) puts what is among their most valuable possessions — a team of horses — on an equal plain with the family. One of the family’s cattle stands above them all on the sod house’s roof, a quirky accident placing the ownership of livestock not only on equal par but above the family in terms of importance. A table decorated with a blanket has also been hauled out of the home and set with food, and it appears some celebration is being documented. The family’s possessions — the house, the animals and the land — dominate the photo. As with other frontier photos of the period, the celebration of success is what’s captured in the photo. It provides a document that says, “Here we are. Here’s our stuff. We’ve made it.”

PhotoBooksPhoto books of people and their possessions by Peter Menzel and Gabriele Galimberti

People, and seemingly Americans in particular, have a long tradition of defining themselves by what they own. From the 19th-century frontier until relatively recently, photos of what we own have largely been for the benefit of ourselves and perhaps the closest of family and friends. In the era of mass self-documentation of even the most mundane activities, meals, possessions and “selfies” distributed through Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, Reddit and other social media platforms, what people own is now widely available for all to visually consume. Some sites critical of the trend, such as Rich Kids of Instagram, point out the more absurd edges of what we’ve all come to accept as just another part of our digital day-to-day. Photojournalists have taken a more documentary approach in such series as Material World: A Global Family Portrait, Toy Stories: Photos of Children From Around the World and Their Favorite Things and Personified: A Photo Series on People and Possessions. It’s clear for many of us, we are what we own.

Last year I became highly aware of the trend among my own gaming subculture. Many of the online groups I had joined to share historic knowledge, miniature modelling techniques, learn about game industry news or discuss rules were quickly filling up with a photos of people’s stuff. As a subset of the “selfie,” the “shelfie” is popular among gamers as a way of showing just how committed they are to the hobby the the sheer size of their collections. Some of the photographed collections border on historical archives of out-of-print games collected over decades in the hobby. More often than not though, many of the photos appear to be presented with a flair of a “top this” subtext or alternately a “this is all I have” apology to the virtual crowd. Things amped up during the past winter holiday season with a torrent of online photographs posted to gaming sites I frequent depicting a virtual arms race of heaps of games received as gifts or bought for themselves.

BNRedDotThe Barnes & Noble “red dot” clearance sale is wildly popular with gamers

This spring the US-based bookseller Barnes & Noble is running what I quickly came to learn was an annual 50%-off game clearance sale, and there was enormous online gamer excitement and chatter in the weeks leading up to the event. Gamers plotted elaborate routes to multiple locations, connected with employees for inside connections, shared inventory reconnaissance (or lack thereof) and even concocted complex plans of buying from one store and returning at another store for a higher value of store credit (an idea not supported by many online). Others, living far away from a B&N store, lamented jealously they were being left out of the sales rush. As the sale period progressed, complaints also arose in a mix of comments on poor local selections or having to settle on buying something the person didn’t really want. Buying something — anything — was critical to many, lest a gamer somewhere feel left out during the sale. In the weeks following, photos of “the haul” have appeared in social media displaying stacks of games purchased (often in multiple copies for gifts or re-sale). Again, photos and shopping stories were met with comments ranging from congratulatory to jealousy to the feelings that this was simply another example of how life isn’t fair.

The emotions wrapped around photographic documentation of the acquisition of games are not limited to the holidays or special sales by corporate retailers. People who post pictures and tales of finding bargain second-hand games in local thrift stores are likewise met with digital slaps on the back or lamentations that some people’s thrift stores are unjustly better than others. Reviews of gaming conventions are increasingly dedicated to celebration or criticism of purchasing opportunities, and in the past year I’ve seen an increasing number of photos showing not only the fabulous games played at a convention but also of all the stuff a person managed to buy while there.

IMG_3025My own “shelfie” taken in mid-2014

I’m a lifelong collector of many things, including comics, books, model trains, music, toys and, yes, games. My comic book collection paid for a lot of my college education. My parents are collectors, too. So was my grandmother. I have great memories and stories about an insane find at a flea market, working for years to track down a long-sought item or hours of relaxed browsing through dust boxes at a yard sale. It’s in my blood — I love collecting.

Gamers I’ve known for decades are also more often than not cut from similar collector cloth. There’s always something new to buy – a board game expansion, a new army to paint, a campaign module, a new edition of rules or the latest hot release. The hobby naturally attracts collectors. I know people with more games than they will ever play or even open for that matter. I also know people who are no less passionate as gamers with small collections of games.

Within the endless stream of online photographs and stories of consumer victory and defeat in the gamer community, there’s a lot of personal information that rises to the surface from comments. Couples have babies or get divorced. Jobs are lost and others find new careers with richer paychecks. People relocate for a variety of reasons, sometimes willingly and sometimes not. Some owe taxes or are buried in household bills while others spend their hefty refunds or max out credit cards. Narratives vary, priorities shift, lives are lived and another game is purchased.

Like most games, life has a time limit. We do what we can to play the game right and by the rules, celebrating our victories along the way (sometimes with a bit too much passion) and hopefully learning from our mistakes. Like those families struggling to show in photographs how they had made a life on the 19th-century American frontier, we all want to show we’re not only surviving but thriving. The photos of shelves and hauls gamers share (again, sometimes with a bit too much passion) may possibly just be the way we’re all trying desperately to communicate, “Here I am. Here’s my stuff. I made it.”

Downloading: Wargame Blogging With 35 Million Images

Embed from Getty Images

I’ve written previously about my longtime career in the photo and film licensing industry, starting out in the mid-1990s as a historic photo researcher. One of my former employers, Getty Images, made a surprise announcement this week that it was making available for free some 35 million images for non-commercial use in social media and blogging. The press release stated Getty Images’ acknowledgement of the widespread use of images without proper licensing, and the new system will allow for data-gathering and one would think some form of monetization long-term.

Using the new functionality is easy with a quick image search and copy/paste of the embed code into a website like Facebook or blog platform like WordPress. Images are importantly displayed with the proper photographer and collection attribution. The Getty Images logo is also prominently shown along with buttons to share the image via Twitter or Tumblr. Clicking on the image itself returns the user to the Getty Images website for full caption information. Because the image is never actually uploaded to the blog’s hosting site, there’s an additional cost savings in storage space. It’s all fast, neat and, again — free.

For wargame bloggers, there’s an enormous amount of iconic and more obscure photographs, maps, posters and illustrations available. The black and white and color historical offering is deep. Contemporary photos of equipment, re-enactments, memorials and sites relevant to military history should also be useful for reference for wargame bloggers like myself. Not every image Getty Images represents is available for free through the embed code, and users should be careful not to grab an image requiring a license fee.

Check out the below for just a glimpse of the breadth and depth in the Getty Images offering which may very well be popping up on some of your favorite blogs very soon.

Ancient & Medieval Warfare

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American War of Independence

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Seven Years War

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Napoleonic Wars

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American Civil War

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African Colonial Wars

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World War I

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World War II

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Cuban Revolution

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War Concepts

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Downloading: Blogging War In Pictures


I’ve made my living for the past 17 years in the pictures business. In 1996, I arrived in New York City and landed a job with a photo-licensing company doing historic photo research. My days were spent fulfilling client requests for photos, illustrations and artwork to be used in advertising, corporate marketing, book publishing, magazines and newspapers,  documentaries, motion pictures and TV programming. Since then, I’ve gone on to work with several of the largest stock photo and film licensing companies in the world.

In my time, I’ve participated in the rapid changes in the business as it evolved from a world of photo prints kept in dusty file cabinets to the digital marketplace of images today. The proliferation of online search and digital photography databases has granted professionals and non-professionals alike enormous access to visuals illustrating  the arc of world history from the dawn of time to the latest celebrity gossip.

With this has come the significant challenges of copyright management. Companies like those that have employed me license images for a fee ranging from a couple bucks to tens-of-thousands of dollars each, depending on the use and value of the image (often based on murky concepts of scarcity and quality). With these licensing fees, photographers, archives recieve payment and people like me are able to pay the rent and feed my kids.

With images easily available online there is a lot of misinformation on in what instances a photo which may be used without paying someone a fee. Bloggers and other online outlets (and even traditional print-based users) regularly use photos under misunderstood concepts like “fair use.” In short, unless someone is granting you permission to use their works you could very well be in some sort of copyright violation and subject to significant legal and financial penalties. This is a conversation we in the licensing business have countless times a day with new and old customers alike.

For a blogger like me, I try to take as many photos myself and stick to others that are either out of copyright or used in the context of reviewing a game, book or film. Looking for great historical reference images for use online or off still remains a challenge at times, but it keeps getting easier all the time.

This past week, the British Library announced the release of nearly one million images for free use via Flickr Commons. The BL becomes the latest insitutional archive to make available enormous selections of images. For bloggers, gamers and armchair historians, these resources are incredible and hours can be spent paging through them. Other existing collections of interest for wargamers include:

For now, below is just a taste of what’s new to be found in the British Library’s new online Flickr collection. The emphasis is on 18th-19th century history with tons of maps, engravings, diagrams and photographs. The Napoleonic Wars is documented in a ton of gorgeous color plates of uniformed soldiers, making them a perfect reference for your miniatures painting projects. The American Civil War is represented in scores of maps, portraits of various military and political leaders and lots of reference drawings of equipment and fortifications. The centuries of Britain’s colonialism is captured with a lot of material on Egypt, South Africa and the Middle East. Finally, there is a fair amount of naval and land imagery from the Spanish-American War.

Have a look for yourself and I’m sure you’ll find some obscure visual historic treasure of your own.

Napoleonic Wars




American Civil War





African Colonial Wars




Spanish-American War




American Civil War: ACW Artillery in 28mm

I spent this past Sunday at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and caught the absolutely spectacular “Photography and the American Civil War” exhibit which runs through September 2, 2013. The hundreds of photos cover a bit of the same ground as past exhibits, documentaries and books, but there’s a lot I had never seen before, too. What spoke to me most were the dozens of simple individual soldier photos. The contrast between the dressed-up idealistic pre-war studio portraits and the devastatingly gruesome prisoner of war and hospital images is wrenching.

Aside from the portraits occupying the bulk of the show, one of my favorite photos from the show was the one shown below by Timothy O’Sullivan from 1864.

Titled “Pennsylvania Light Artillery, Battery B, Petersburg, Virginia,” O’Sullivan’s small photo (maybe 3″ x 9″) purports to give a rare glimpse of a full artillery battery either drilling or possibly in actual combat. The mass of guns, crew and equipment shows the full size and complexity an artillery section brought to the fields of the American Civil War 150 years ago.

My go-to favorite miniatures company for my American Civil War 28mm gaming is Perry Brothers for both their sculpting and reasonable cost in both their plastic and metal ranges. I have three artillery teams painted up  from their metals line, but more guns would always be better. However, each gun team currently runs me about $12. At this price, modelling realistic large-scale batteries like those in the O’Sullivan photo from the Met has seemed pretty cost-prohibitive.

Well, over at the Perry Brothers Plastics Workbench section of their site, they’ve just recently teased a few plastic sprues of artillery which will include carriages, limbers, multiple barrels and crew. The flexibility of the soon-to-come set will allow for modelling of different crews — North and South — as well as rifled and smoothbore gun types.


There’s no release date for this set as of yet, but in the meantime there are some nice work-in progress shots I’ve shared here. With a few of these assembled and painted up on each side of my tabletop battlefield, my games will get an added boost of realism captured timelessly in the hundreds of photos currently on view here in New York.