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News & Insight

Playboy Helped Create The JPEG | Hugh Hefner’s Other Photographic Legacy

By Kishore Sawh on September 30th 2017

It’s true, Playboy, Hefner, and a particular Swedish model played a role in the development of the JPEG, and no insignificant role either.

When we think of Playboy we think of – well, I guess that would depend on the person… Playboy has been at the center of social and political debate since its inception. Hefner and Playboy were excoriating American puritanism and embedded racism and various other prejudices when frankly, Americans would scarcely use the word ‘God’ in ‘vain’ in public; when there weren’t same sex marriages (see Hefner’s op-ed on that here); when birth control was taboo and when segregation still existed. Playboy rebelled first in regards to sex, and then publicly to the rest of the aforementioned list.

There’s no doubt too, that Playboy allowed for a level of photographic expression which didn’t exist before, like it or not, and for every boudoir, swimsuit, fashion photographer out there today there’s probably some drop of influence that can be traced back to Playboy. I mean, when your first issue has a centerfold spread of, then-unknown, Marilyn Monroe you’re sort of destined to be a talking point, but isn’t it curious that she may not be publication’s most lasting centerfold. That honor goes to Lena Söderberg, otherwise known as The First Lady Of The Internet.

Söderberg was a 21 year old Swede who graced Playboy’s November 1972 issue as Miss November, and the centerfold image of her from that issue is an image you’ve probably seen on numerous occasions in your lifetime and didn’t realize. It can be found all over the internet, in scientific textbooks journals, in preparatory schools, and more. How? Well, by happenstance the photo became the most widely used picture in image-processing research, to the point where her image was one of the first ever uploaded to ARPANET, which would become the Internet as we know it today. But she only got there due to her involvement with image compression research.

The basic story goes that a team of researchers at the University of Souther California doing pioneering work in digital image processing, received funding from DARPA in the mid-70s, and as Andrew Sawchuk, a then prof at USC, recounted in a newsletter in 2001, the team was usually doing their work on whatever images were at hand, but were looking for something better, with better color, and a human face. Someone then walked in with the current Playboy edition and the centerfold was the perfect subject given the amount of detail, gradations, and by way of having an appealing and familiar subject.

Now, there’s no need to rummage through your child’s (or your own) textbooks in search of nudes, and that’s partially because the researchers needed an image to fit the 512 x 512 pixel scanner, so they cut the image at the shoulders. That scanner had to turn the image into digital line layers of red, green, and blue, and the 3 sets of colored lines became the standard that turned into JPEG.

[REWIND: Woman Fired After Body Positive Photo Set Goes Viral | The Consequences Of Expression]

The interesting photography industry side of things didn’t end there however, as all of this happened without the knowledge of permission of Lena or Playboy. It was a lesson in image rights, if there ever was one, and a lesson that once something is out online there’s no containing it. When Playboy found out they quickly addressed the group, however, Hefner expressed that if it was used for education and research they were allowed to go forth. Mind you, it had already proliferated by that point into mainstream tech culture, and Lena had become something of a celebrity and icon within the computing world. She was then invited to all manners of conferences and signed autographs and the works.

Lena became for the engineers something like what Rita Hayworth was for U.S. soldiers in the trenches of World War II. The engineers invited her to attend a conference in Boston in 1997, where she signed auto- graphs and posed for pictures with the troops. Over the years, there have been Web sites, poetry, and, if you’ll excuse the pun, a tiff or two devoted to Lena. – Jamie Hutchinson

You can find the Playboy rendition of the story here (NSFW), and a quick search for Lena Söderberg will provide you with pages of results, most of which are quite safe for work.

So, thank you Playboy. Thank you Lena. Thank you Hef.

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A photographer and writer based in Miami, he can often be found at dog parks, and airports in London and Toronto. He is also a tremendous fan of flossing and the happiest guy around when the company’s good.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Ralph Hightower

    The Playboy rendition of the article is NSFW? Other than it being hosted on, the article is not NSFW. Going to may raise red flags on a company computer.

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    • Kishore Sawh

      It wasn’t NSFW at the time I checked it, but you never know what banners may be rolling, or how it may change. I put that there for caution. 

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