A few weeks ago, Megan and I were sitting in our image processing class having a blast learning about edge detection. My second coffee of the day was helping me stay awake as I tried to soak in stuff like:
1. The original Lena image (sometimes spelled ‘Lenna’) was a photograph of a Swedish model named Lena Sjooblom. The image first appeared in the centerfold of the November 1972 issue of Playboy Magazine. The image above is the cropped version – what you don’t see is that everything else is also visible in the image (did you notice she’s standing in front of a mirror?).
2. I’ve read two different versions of how this image came to be used so widely in image processing. In one version, a professor and student were searching for a high quality image to use for a colleague’s conference paper. “They got 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.” Lucky for them, someone happened to stroll on into the lab carrying a Playboy magazine at just the right moment. In the other version of the story, a professor needed some standard images for a textbook he was writing on image processing. And lucky for him, the centerfold of Lena was sitting in the file cabinet in lab.
-- Ok – can we pause for a second and talk about how absurd both scenarios are? Why would you ever stroll into your place of work with a Playboy magazine casually tucked under your arm? Or leave said Playboy magazine in the file cabinet in your place of work? --
3. The image became CRAZY popular as a test image in image processing and is still widely used today. The Institute of Electronics and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Editor-in-Chief Emeritus, Davis Munson, has some ideas as to why: “I think it is safe to assume that the Lena image became a standard in our "industry" for two reasons. First, the image contains a nice mixture of detail, flat regions, shading, and texture that do a good job of testing various image processing algorithms. It is a good test image! Second, the Lena image is a picture of an attractive woman. It is not surprising that the (mostly male) image processing research community gravitated toward an image that they found attractive.”
You know what I find surprising? That fields like computer science and math that have recognized how much they need women to join their ranks in stronger numbers still use images that to me are a symbol of a [hopefully] bygone era of academia being an Old Boys’ Club. (Hey Bob, wanna smoke a cigar at the club and look at my Playboy magazine?)
A graduate student posting in this Quora forum agrees with Davis Munson: “Image Processing is highly male dominated field and it's natural that it's pleasing to see the beautiful face of a girl. Actually, we had discussion about this in our Computer Vision class and everyone agreed upon this idea.”
I had the chance to interview Rachel Ward, who is an assistant professor of mathematics at UT Austin.
Q: When was the first time you remember seeing the Lena image? What was your first reaction?
A: I first saw Lena some time in grad school. I think my first reaction was that she was quite attractive; I didn’t think much of it.
Q: Are you surprised the image is still used so widely in image processing?
A: Once I found out about the origin of the image, and that the "complete version" was just a click away on Google, I was shocked. I couldn’t believe that this was widely known and accepted; it seemed (seems) extremely unprofessional.
Q: Why do you think it persists? Does it have something to do with the gender dynamics of the image processing field?
A: Yes, it persists because Lena is an attractive woman and people like to look at attractive faces. Lena also contains a nice mix of textures and sharp edges (but so do many other images).
Q: Why did you choose Fabio for your paper (and not David Beckham)?
A: Fabio has the best hair and everyone knows that hair is important for texture analysis =]
[Read more about Deanna Needell’s thoughts on Lena and the story about them getting permission from Fabio’s agent to use the image here.]