The Immortal Life of Lena Söderberg

At the end of the 19th century, the corpse of an unidentified girl was fished out of the Seine, and the undertakers were so impressed by the beauty of the drowned woman that they ordered a death mask from her face. Soon this mask began to be replicated and sold as a room decoration. In 1955, a mannequin was made on its basis.Resurrect Anna» (Resusci Anne) for first aid training.

Unknown from the Seine
Unknown from the Seine

At the beginning of the 20th century, Lena had another predecessor – the model Audrey Manson. This woman was born in 1891, had a meteoric career as an actress and model in New York in the 1910s, but was tried in 1919 for complicity in the murder of her lover’s wife – and although she was acquitted, she never recovered from the shock. and also quickly lost orders and favor. Since 1931, she was in a mental hospital, where she lived in complete oblivion until 1996, dying at the age of 104.

Film frame "Inspiration" 1915 - apparently the first in which the main character is completely.  naked
A frame from the 1915 film “Inspiration” is apparently the first in which the main character is in full. nude

Her life-size statues of marble and metal still adorn New York buildings and bridges, but detailed history this model has become known recently.

Similar cases occurred with the female voice, and not with the image.

Susanna Vega (b. 1959) didn’t even suspectthat her song “Tom’s Diner” in 1991 was the first track recorded in MP3 format when this format was just being tested. Apparently, the song just liked Karlheinz Brandenburgwho led the development of this format, but I will publish the clip itself here so that you can appreciate its rhythmic and acoustic simplicity.

Finally, even in imaging, Lena was not the first playboy model. In 1961, Lawrence Roberts used a photograph of Miss July 1960, performing under the pseudonym Teddy Smith; her real name is Delilah Henry (b. 1942). Roberts wanted to test how the image would change when compressed from 6 to 2 bits in monochrome.

A selection of color photographs of Smith

Why did Lena Söderberg’s photo go viral?

Oddly enough, I did not find a clear answer to this question. In the summer of 1973, either Dr. William Pratt or his assistant, Alexander Savchuk, got the magazine with this spread, and they decided to use the top of the scanned image as a standard test image when developing an algorithm for compressing JPEG files. Purely technically, in those years it was difficult to accumulate many high-quality samples both on a color printer and in digital form, so there is undoubtedly an element of chance. But the grayscale histogram shows how smooth the transition of midtones (Fourier spectrum) turned out to be in the photo – that is, how smoothly it covers the spectrum from yellowish to purple through various shades of pink, including flesh:

In addition, there are quite a lot of small details, chiaroscuro, and well-defined monochromatic areas in the picture. It really turned out to be not only aesthetic, but also functional.

Lena’s Alternatives

Lena Söderberg herself, being in her second and last marriage, took the surname Forsen and returned to Sweden. She learned about her fame in IT only in 1988 (and took this fame with great surprise). But the picture itself did not leave academia until 1991, when it appeared on the cover of July issue of Optical Engineering along with another famous reference image – “Peppers” (Peppers).

AT database The Institute for Signal and Image Processing (SIPI) contains dozens of test images, including female ones. Along with “Peppers” (4.2.07), “Baboon” (4.2.03) is also widely known. I will give these three pictures here for comparison, to show how Lena differs from the previous two in terms of the spectrum of shades:

Characteristically, several test images from the aforementioned archive have been removed for cultural rather than scientific reasons. Mrs. Forsen was at first obviously flattered by the specific fame that had fallen on her. In fact, it is interesting that quite an ordinary erotic model has become known as an icon of the high-tech industry, deserved comparisons to the Mona Lisa and even participated as a guest of honor in computer science conferences, for example, in 2014. But already in 2019, a documentary film “Losing Lena”, the main message of which was the “inappropriate sexuality” of this photo and the need to exclude Lena from wide use. So, in 2013, Deanna Needell and Rachel Ward in an article about restoration of distorted images posted three pictures Fabio Lanzoni (sex symbol of the 80s) in 256×256 resolution with varying degrees of Gaussian noise exposure:

Daniel Lemire on his blog indicateswhich can be used as test images, for example, dataset from Kodak. On the contrary, Richard Mathews of the University of Adelaide points out that Lena’s rejection is inadvisable – not only because the photo has already been studied to the smallest detail, but also because the sum of its details, shades, shadows, (de)focus, textures, reflections and smooth surfaces allows you to test a variety of algorithms – from edge detection to noise reduction, and the image itself lends itself to compression up to 50 microns (thickness of a human hair) without serious loss of quality.

An important aspect of Lena’s image is its wide circulation and the fact that both the original and the processed image continue to be replicated further. I will draw your attention to one repositoryin which specific color distortions are applied to Lena’s portrait:


The author did these transformations by segmenting the image using k-means and then mixing, and the process itself was called “Warholization”. Here he hints at the surname Andy Warhol, American artist, one of the largest representatives of pop art. Warhol became famous for his praise of stamped and “conveyor” art, in particular, the work “Cans of Campbell’s Soup“. Apparently, Lena can only be erased from computer science, but naturally she will not disappear from the industry, because after the death of the model, this photo will inevitably be perceived, regardless of a living person, as a research template.

In some respects, Lena’s role in the history of imaging can be compared to “the immortal life of Henrietta Lacks“.

This American woman was born in 1920 and died of cervical cancer in 1951 after being treated for about 8 months, from March to October. Henrietta’s tumor cells are unique in that they appear to be missing not only Hayflick limit, but in general any limit of life. On February 8, the HeLa cell line was received from Henrietta, which continues to divide to this day. HeLa cells are so resistant that they even endure mailing. Oncologist George Otto Gay removed and propagated this line without Henrietta’s knowledge (perhaps because he did not fear a lawsuit from a terminally ill poor African American woman undergoing radiotherapy). Google Scholar is currently capturing over 2 million works with reference to the HeLa cell line; culture is used not only in oncology, but also in biotechnology and genetic engineering. In 2012, the book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”, which is positioned as biographical, but to a greater extent is scientific and medical.

Given the value of the HeLa cell line for biology and the circumstances of the preservation of this culture for the needs of science, it is difficult not to draw parallels with the fate of Lena Söderberg. A beautiful woman is not immune from the fact that her body will become uncontrollably replicated, real or virtual. However, Lena’s case demonstrates how difficult it is to deal with information once it is in the public domain. Today, visual data is spreading through social networks at a staggering speed and becomes indelible from the Internet, and this can only be put up with.


At the end of this article, I will give this picture of Emily Ratajkowski (b. 1991), one of the most attractive erotic models of the 21st century. In 2020, Emily wrote long text about how the model has the right and power to control the distribution of their pictures on the Internet. This text seems sly to me, at least in comparison with the case of Lena Söderberg. Lena has the moral right to ask to be excluded from the datasets (although these requests are both counterproductive and generally fruitless). But Emily grew up in the age of the Internet, consciously became a sex symbol and did a lot to reset her privacy for money and fame. It is unlikely that in old age she will be able to redeem herself from all the clouds, and even more so to make such an impressive transition from the cover of Playboy to the cover of Optical Engineering, as Lena Söderberg did. However, her text seems to me a timely and just a desperate warning, so I will be very happy to read it in Russian translation and see the face of Emily Ratajkowski, for example, in AGI, like Samantha.

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