Do you know this girl? You’ve probably seen her before. She’s been dubbed “The First Lady of the Internet.” Her name is Lena Söderberg, she’s a Swedish model and she was Miss November 1972 using the name Lenna Sjööblom. So how did she get this title? Surprisingly, it wasn’t for her good looks but because the upper half of her centerfold is the most widely used standard test image for electronic photograph manipulation and transfer. The photo is also used by designers to measure photographic advancement of things like color and transitions.

It’s believed that sometime in June or July 1973 Alexander Sawchuk, an assistant professor of electrical engineering at the USC Signal and Image Processing Institute, and an intern were searching their lab for a photo they could use to scan for a conference paper. They had attempted to use a variety of test images, but none were glossy enough to ensure the output dynamic range they needed. Then a friend walked into the lab with a Playboy. The two flipped to the centerfold, ripped the top half off and wrapped it around their Muirhead wirephoto scanner. After that, as one writer put it in the Professional Communication Society Newsletter, “Lenna became for the engineers something like what Rita Hayworth was for U.S. soldiers in the trenches of World War II.”

She even attended a conference in 1997 to sign autographs and pose for photos! “By 1991, SIPI had distributed Lenna for a fee to researchers all over the world, and she regularly graced the pages of image processing journals, books, and conference papers. (Usually she was referred to as ‘Lenna,’ following the Swedish spelling that appeared in Playboy,)” explains the PCS Newsletter. “Even today, if you thumb through an issue of Optical Engineering or a related journal, you are likely to see more than one Lenna, and sometimes dozens of her. According to my informal survey of the library shelves here, if the criterion is frequency of Lenna, then the IEEE Transactions on Image Processing is by far the sexiest journal out there. A cursory search of the Web reveals countless sites using Lenna for research demonstrations.”

Neither Playboy or Lenna have ever had an issue with the field using the photo as long as the photo of our Playmate is used for research and education. Jeff Sideman, the President of the Society for Imaging Science and Technology, has even worked with Playboy’s archivist to re-scan the image to ensure Lenna can remain the standard reference image for as long as possible.