Apr 24, 2007

Geek Love, the Lenna Story

lenna-sm.jpgMay, 2007 will be the ten year anniversary of the unveiling of Lenna at the 1997 Society for Imaging Science and Technology (IS&T) conference in Boston.

Who is Lenna? Lenna (or Lena Soderberg) was a Playboy centerfold from November 1972. So how did her shot end up as the object of desire for so many “geeks”? (see Lenna’s Playmate page-warning, contains nudity)

According to Jamie Hutchinson in a May 2001 article in the Newsletter of the IEEE Professional Communication Society, it was pure happenstance.

“Alexander Sawchuk estimates that it was in June or July of 1973 when he, then an assistant professor of electrical engineering at the USC Signal and Image Processing Institute (SIPI), along with a graduate student and the SIPI lab manager, was hurriedly searching the lab for a good image to scan for a colleague’s conference paper. They had tired of their stock of usual test images, dull stuff dating back to television standards work in the early 1960s. They wanted something glossy to ensure good output dynamic range, and they wanted a human face. Just then, somebody happened to walk in with a recent issue of Playboy.

The engineers tore away the top third of the centerfold so they could wrap it around the drum of their Muirhead wirephoto scanner, which they had outfitted with analog-to-digital converters (one each for the red, green, and blue channels) and a Hewlett Packard 2100 minicomputer. The Muirhead had a fixed resolution of 100 lines per inch and the engineers wanted a 512 x 512 image, so they limited the scan to the top 5.12 inches of the picture, effectively cropping it at the subject’s shoulders.”


Back in 1997 at the conference, it was decided to track down Lenna and invite her to attend in person. According to this story (308K PDF download), it was Jeff Seideman, president of the Boston chapter of the IS&T.

“”The use of her photo is clearly one of the most important events in the history of electronic imaging,” Seideman said. Image compression is what has made the World Wide Web the wildly popular communications medium it is today.

When it came time to plan for the 50th anniversary conference of the Society for Imaging Science and Technology (IS&T), Seideman, in his role as president of the Boston chapter of the IS&T, decided he wanted to commemorate the event by featuring highlights from the history of imaging technology. Nobody he talked to knew what had become of the First Lady of the Internet, so Seideman decided he would track down the elusive Lena.

“I emailed the Swedish members in our directory asking if they knew how to get in touch with her, and none did,” Seideman said. “But then I got referred from one person to another and finally someone gave me her telephone number and address. I wrote her and asked if she would be willing to come to the conference, and she said yes.”


Lena during a visit to IS&T

Lena Soderberg, nee Sjööblom, now lives near Stockholm and works for a government agency supervising handicapped employees archiving data using, appropriately, computers and scanners. With the assistance of Playboy, Seideman arranged for Miss November 1972, The First Lady of the Internet, to appear at the IS&T Boston conference on May 20 and 21.

Seideman adds that over the years some researchers have complained that they lacked vital information about the Lena image, such as what type of scanner was originally used, what kind of camera and film. He says that he is working with Playboy’s archivist to re-scan Lena’s image and compile all the missing information, including everything from the type of photo emulsion used to make the print to the technical specifications of the scanner. In this way, Seideman says, the image of this Playboy Playmate can remain the standard reference image for comparing compression technologies into the 21st century.”

It seems that very few people have seen the original (and uncropped) version of the image. The original can be found here (warning, Lena is, of course, nude).


A bit of trivia, according to this web page, Lenna’s issue (November 1972) was Playboy’s best selling issue ever and sold 7,161,561 copies.

A fellow by the name Thomas ‘C’ (no last name) even wrote a Sonnet for Lena.

“Over the years there has been quite a bit of controversy over the use of this image. Some people proposed banning the use of this image because of its source. Also, Playboy threatened to prosecute the unauthorized use of the image. Check out an editorial by the editor of SPIE journal Optical Engineering. Check out a note by the former editor-in-chief of the IEEE Transactions on Image Processing. According to Wired Magazine, Playboy has eased up in its pursuit of the copyright violators of this image.”

The original image is still available as part of the USC SIPI Image Database in their “miscellaneous” collection.


A small sample of the research done utilizing Lenna’s image, check this page.

Topics include;

  • Color Image Quantization
  • Fractal Image Compression
  • Investigations of Image Compression Using Multisplines
  • Non-Uniform Sampling and Interpolation for Lossy Image Compression
  • Vector Quantization
  • Wavelets and Filterbanks

Unfortunately, some of the links are now broken.


Additional Lena resources:

Original web page by Chuck Rosenberg (primary source)

Wired story

Playboy story The Search for Lena

An additional note by Jamie Hutchinson in his article:

A final, serendipitous detail from the legend of Lena: She makes a fleeting appearance in Woody Allen’s 1973 movie Sleeper.

Allen, playing the hero who awakens in the year 2173 after 200 years of cryogenically induced sleep, is asked to identify some artifacts from the 20th century. One of the artifacts is a Playboy centerfold, the very one in which Lena appears in her floppy, feathered hat, standing before a full-length mirror, gazing back at the viewer over her bare right shoulder, eyes beckoning, mouth set in a Mona Lisa-esque smile.

“I’ll just take this, you know, and study it later and give you a full report on it,” says Allen as he folds the picture and slips it inside his robe.

Surely, no image since Mona Lisa has been studied harder.

One Response to “Geek Love, the Lenna Story”

  1. marcdaniels Says:

    Well, we were all young…once. Nice ass!

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.