“EVERY MORNING, LENA Forsen wakes up beneath a brass-trimmed wooden mantel clock dedicated to “The First Lady of the Internet.”
IT WAS PRESENTED to her more than two decades ago by the Society for Imaging Science and Technology, in recognition of the pivotal—and altogether unexpected—role she played in shaping the digital world as we know it.
Among some computer engineers, Lena is a mythic figure, a mononym on par with Woz or Zuck. Whether or not you know her face, you’ve used the technology it helped create; practically every photo you’ve ever taken, every website you’ve ever visited, every meme you’ve ever shared owes some small debt to Lena. Yet today, as a 67-year-old retiree living in her native Sweden, she remains a little mystified by her own fame. “I’m just surprised that it never ends,” she told me recently.
Lena’s path to iconhood began in the pages of Playboy. In 1972, at the age of 21, she appeared as Miss November, wearing nothing but a feathered sun hat, boots, stockings, and a pink boa. (At her suggestion, the editors spelled her first name with an extra “n,” to encourage proper pronunciation. “I didn’t want to be called Leena,” she explained.)
About six months later, a copy of the issue turned up at the University of Southern California’s Signal and Image Processing Institute, where Alexander Sawchuk and his team happened to be looking for a new photograph against which to test their latest compression algorithm—the math that would make unwieldy image files manageable. Lena’s glossy centerfold, with its complex mixture of colors and textures, was the perfect candidate. They tore off the top third of the spread, ran it through a set of analog-to-digital converters, and saved the resulting 512-line scan to their Hewlett-Packard 2100. (Sawchuk did not respond to requests for comment.)
The USC team proudly handed out copies to lab visitors, and soon the image of the young model looking coquettishly over her bare shoulder became an industry standard, replicated and reanalyzed billions of times as what we now know as the JPEG came into being. According to James Hutchinson, an editor at the University of Illinois College of Engineering, Lena was for engineers “something like what Rita Hayworth was for US soldiers in the trenches of World War II.”
They wrote poems in her honor, added their own artistic flourishes to her likeness, and gave the centerfold image a nickname befitting a Renaissance portrait: “The Lenna.” In the 1973 movie Sleeper, when the protagonist wakes up in the year 2173, he is asked to identify images from the past, including photos of Stalin, de Gaulle, and Lena. These days, although her image shows up mostly on media studies syllabi and in coders’ forums, it is universally acknowledged as an indelible piece of internet history.
For almost as long as the Lenna has been idolized among computer scientists, however, it has also been a source of controversy. “I have heard feminists argue that the image should be retired,” David C. Munson Jr., current president of the Rochester Institute of Technology, wrote back in 1996. Yet, 19 years later, the Lenna remained so ubiquitous that Maddie Zug, a high school senior from Virginia, felt compelled to write an op-ed about it in The Washington Post. The image, she explained, had elicited “sexual comments” from the boys in her class, and its continuing inclusion in the curriculum was evidence of a broader “culture issue.”
Deanna Needell, a math professor at UCLA, had similar memories from college, so in 2013 she and a colleague staged a quiet protest: They acquired the rights to a head shot of the male model Fabio Lanzoni and used that for their imaging research instead. But perhaps the most stringent critic of the image is Emily Chang, author of Brotopia. “The prolific use of Lena’s photo can be seen as a harbinger of behavior within the tech industry,” she writes in the book’s opening chapter. “In Silicon Valley today, women are second-class citizens and most men are blind to it.” For Chang, the moment that Lena’s centerfold was torn and scanned marked “tech’s original sin.”
ONE VOICE THAT has been conspicuously missing from the Lenna debate is that of Lena herself. The first and last time she spoke with the American press was in 1997, at the same conference where she was given her beloved mantel clock. (WIRED ran a short article on the visit titled “Playmate Meets Geeks Who Made Her a Net Star.”)
Jeff Seideman, a former chapter president of the Society for Imaging Science and Technology, recalls that Lena’s presence at the conference caused a stir among his colleagues. “As silly as it sounds, they were surprised she was a real person,” he told me. “After some of them had spent 25 years looking at her picture, she just became this test image.” Since then, as the internet has grown to encompass billions of users and trillions of photos, no one has bothered to ask her what she makes of her image and its controversial afterlife.”
Click HERE to see the article at Wired Magazine