Image Processing: the Lena story

If you are familiar with image processing textbooks and articles, you must have seen the following picture:


Following is an extract from the comp.compression FAQ:

For the curious: 'lena' or 'lenna' is a digitized Playboy centerfold, from November 1972. (Lenna is the spelling in Playboy, Lena is the Swedish spelling of the name.) Lena Soderberg (ne Sjooblom) was last reported living in her native Sweden, happily married with three kids and a job with the state liquor monopoly. In 1988, she was interviewed by some Swedish computer related publication, and she was pleasantly amused by what had happened to her picture. That was the first she knew of the use of that picture in the computer business.

A scan of the original Lenna from Playboy is available from:

The editorial in the January 1992 issue of Optical Engineering (v. 31 no. 1) details how Playboy has finally caught on to the fact that their copyright on Lena Sjooblom's photo is being widely infringed. However Wired mentionned that: "Although Playboy is notorious for cracking down on illegal uses of its images, it has decided to overlook the widespread distribution of this particular centerfold".

The following was found on sci.image.processing:

Subject: Lena (parting words) (longish)
Date: 21 Feb 1996 13:33:20 GMT
Newsgroups: sci.image.processing

If Dr. Munson and the Transactions can forgive the copyright infringment, the departing Editor-in-chief's comments on the Lena deal are too good not to share with the group.

A Note on Lena

During my term as Editor-in-Chief, I was approached a number of times with the suggestion that the IEEE TRANSACTIONS ON IMAGE PROCESSING should consider banning the use of the image of Lena. For those of you who are uninitiated in this brouhaha, let me provide a few facts. The original Lena image was a photograph of a Swedish woman named Lena Sjooblom, which appeared in the November 1972 issue of Playboy Magazine. (In English, Lena is sometimes spelled Lenna, to encourage proper pronunciation.) The image was later digitized at the University of Southern California as one of many possible images for use by the research community. 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. The Woody Allen buffs among you may be interested to know that the Lena image appeared in the movie Sleeper. Tom Huang pointed this out to me. In the scene where Allen awakes in the year 2173, he is asked to identify a number of artifacts from the past, including photographs of Joseph Stalin and Charles de Gaulle, and the issue of Playboy Magazine containing Lena. The view to the movie watcher is fleeting and somewhat unclear, but this is the closest I have come to viewing the original image. From second-hand reports from Sweden, I am told that Lena is living in a small town south of Stockholm. She is said to be quite amazed that her image has become a standard in the research community. In recent years, Playboy Enterprises was giving thought to enforcing their copyright on the Lena image (see Brian Thompson's editorial in the January 1992 issue of Optical Engineering). It appears, though, that this is no longer the case.

So what is the problem? Well, quite understandably, some members of our community are unhappy with the source of the Lena image. I am sympathetic to their argument, which states that we should not use material from any publication that is seen (by some) as being degrading to women. I must tell you, though, that within any single segment of our community (e.g., men, women, feminists), there is a complete diversity of opinion on the Lena issue. You may be surprised to know that most persons who have approached me on this issue are male. On the other hand, some informal polling on my part suggests that most males are not even aware of the origin of the Lena image! I have heard feminists argue that the image should be retired. However, I just recently corresponded with a feminist who had a different point of view. She was familiar with the Lena image, but she had not imagined that there could be any controversy. When I offered an explanation of why some persons are offended by the use of the image. she responded tartly. A watered-down version of her reply is, "There isn't much of Lena showing in the Lena image. This political correctness stuff infuriates me!"

So there you have it. Much of our community is blind to the fact (until now!) that there is a controversy. Among those who are "tuned in," there is vigorous disagreement. As Editor-in-Chief, I did not feel that this issue warranted the imposition of censorship, which, in my view, should be applied in only the most extreme circumstances. In addition, in establishing the precedent, I was not sure where this might lead. Should we ban the Cheerleader video sequence? Should we establish an oversight panel to rule on acceptable imagery? Instead, I opted to wait and see how the situation might develop. I suspected that the use of Lena would decline naturally. as diverse imagery became more widely available and as the field of image processing broadened in scope. Although the use of Lena has declined (witness our January, 1992 issue!), this image still appears so frequently that I imagine it must be grating on those who oppose its use. What to do? I favor a compromise of sons. I suggest that the IP authorship be more sensitive to the feelings of those who are offended by the Lena image. In cases where another image will serve your purpose equally well, why not use that other image? After all, why needlessly upset colleagues? And who knows? We may even devise image compression schemes that work well across a broader class of images, instead of being tuned to Lena!

Editor-in-Chief, Emeritus

I was gratified to note that there were at least three articles in that issue of Tr. Img Proc. with Lena test image! There was also more using The Photographer, maybe we should start a legend that the Photographer was photographing Lena at the Bridge............ ;')

The following was found on Wired

Playmate Meets Geeks Who Made Her a Net Star
by Janelle Brown
6:11pm 20.May.97.PDT

Having graced the desktops of millions of engineers, researchers, and digital imaging specialists for 25 years, Playboy's Miss November 1972 - dubbed the "First Lady of the Internet" - is coming to meet her fans.

Lena Sjooblom became Net royalty when her centerfold was scanned in by programmers at the University of Southern California to use as a test image for digital compression and transmission over Arpanet, the precursor to the Internet. Years later, the "Lena" image (a closeup of her face and bare shoulder) is till in the industry standard for tests. This week, Sjooblom is making her first public appearance at the 50th Annual Conference of the Society for Imaging Science in Technology, as part of an overview of the history of digital imaging.

"They must be so tired of me... looking at the same picture for all these years! comments Sjooblom, who was, until last November, unaware of her fame, and who has still never seen the Net. This week, she is busy signing autographs, posing for pictures, and giving a presentation about herself at the conference.

Playboy helped track down the Swedish native in Stockholm, where she helps handicapped people work on (non-networked) computers. Although Playboy is notorious for cracking down on illegal uses of its images, it has decided to overlook the widespread distribution of this particular centerfold.

Says Eileen Kent, VP of new media at Playboy: "We decided we should exploit this, because it is a phenomenon."

An excellent page about Lena can be found here: