Dylan Mulvin (Microsoft Research), “Clipped, Cropped, Scanned: The Lena Image and the Making of a Test Medium”

Dick - Lena 4.2.04 (1)

[Courtesy of the University of Southern California, Signal and Image Processing Institute database.]

The Lena test image began as the November 1972 Playboy Magazine centerfold. Through folding, tearing, or cropping (accounts differ), it was transformed into an early digital test image by pioneering image engineers at the University of Southern California. The Lena image went on to become, by anecdotal measure, the most common digital test image of all time, and an icon of the image engineering profession. More importantly, its success was also an indelible index of the gendered dynamics of computer engineering workplaces and classrooms. In this talk, I document how this softcore pornographic image transformed from paper to pixel, and from a centerfold to an instrument of knowledge production. Through the history and mythology of the Lena image, we can see how both manual processes of cropping, and standards for encoding and compressing digital images were each filtered through the visual and gendered vocabularies of engineers in the 1970s.