Artist Provocation: Louise Byng

There's Something About Lenna

Lenna or Lena (pictured above left) is a standard test image that has been widely used in the field of image processing since 1973. Standard test images are digital picture files used across different institutions to test image processing and image compression algorithms. By using the same standard test images, different labs are able to compare results, both visually and quantitatively.

With this particular image, the story goes that imaging scientists at the University of Southern California, hurriedly searching the lab for a good image to scan for a colleague’s conference paper, scanned an image from a men's magazine. Lenna is Lena Söderberg, cropped from the centerfold of November 1972's issue of Playboy.

This scan became one of the most used images in computer history. In a 1999 issue of IEEE Transactions on Image Processing, Lenna was used in three separate articles, and the picture continued to appear in scientific journals throughout the beginning of the 21st century. Lenna is so widely accepted in the image processing community that Söderberg was a guest at the 50th annual Conference of the Society for Imaging Science and Technology in 1997.

The possibility for image compression is what has made the World Wide Web the wildly popular communications medium it is today. Carnegie Mellon’s School of Computer Science adds, of Lenna:

Over the past 25 years, no image has been more important in the history of imaging and electronic communications, and today Lena is considered the First Lady of the Internet.
Lena montage by Rathus.jpg

To explain the image's popularity, David C. Munson, editor-in-chief of IEEE Transactions on Image Processing, noted that it was a good test image because of its detail, flat regions, shading, and texture. However, he also noted that its popularity was largely because an image of an attractive woman appealed to the males in a male-dominated field.

The continued use of the image has produced controversy because the Lenna photo has been pointed to as an example of sexism in the sciences, reinforcing gender stereotypes. In a 1999 essay on reasons for the male predominance in computer science, applied mathematician Dianne P. O'Leary wrote:

Suggestive pictures used in lectures on image processing convey the message that the lecturer caters to the males only. For example, it is amazing that the "Lena" pin-up image is still used as an example in courses and published as a test image in journals today.

The use of the test image at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County, Virginia also provoked a guest editorial by a senior in The Washington Post in 2015 about its detrimental impact on aspiring female students in computer science.

The full illustrated piece at the top of this post expands upon the Lenna test image using drawing to depict the full Playboy centerfold image, whilst the above squares match the 512x512 test image size, showing alternative crops.

My provocation is designed to catalyse thought around the importance of context or seeing the bigger picture in relation to the truth. Images, as with quotes and information, can be cropped to fulfil the purpose suited to a specific author or group. An example of this in action is the media's depiction of Mark Duggan, whose expression is revealed to be one of grief rather than anger or menace when you 'zoom out' from the visible segment to see the full image.
It is also to remind us that dominant perspectives exist in all areas of life, and no images are truly objective or for all.

Sources used: transmediale festival 2016, wikipedia, IEEEmotherboard.

Byng is one of the Lead Artists working on TEDxSkoll, who have been commissioned to create a new piece of work in response to the theme of Truth. We know that artists play a key role in challenging our interpretations and preconceptions of the world around us, and have the power to make us think and feel differently on topics that are vast or intangible. For this reason, provocations from Byng and 3 further artists will be on display at TEDxSkoll, as well as featuring on our blog in the run up to the day. They will also be curating a publication to accompany the event, featuring their findings, along with artwork collated from an open submission process.