From Chicago Magazine:“Playboy could not have happened anywhere else but Chicago.”— Hugh Hefner in the Chicago Tribune, April 21, 2012
Lena Soderberg’s centerfold shoot in November 1972 (the magazine’s best-selling issue ever) became the Lena test image, coded into the DNA of the web
Once upon a time Playboy was ubiquitous in a way that seems unimaginable now. In The New Yorker, Joan Acocella reports that “by the end of the sixties, one-fourth of all American college men were buying his magazine every month.” The plausible reasons for its decline are numerous. Print circulation has declined generally; maintaining a magazine that presents itself as the apex of a certain kind of culture, over more than six decades, is an impossible task.
The world changed around it; the internet subsumed it. Digital media, in each new form, took away pieces of the modish, urbane image Hugh Hefner centered Playboy around. But at its height—literally when its most successful issue published in the early 1970s—a Playboy centerfold shoot became the digital template for the technology that would make its main product, nude women, almost unavoidable, rather than hidden between the pages of a magazine stored in closets and under beds.
“In the nineteen-eighties and thereafter, the artificiality only increased, as did that of all American mass media,” writes Acocella of the aesthetic evolution of his centerfolds. As his models became more airbrushed and digitized ,Hefner adapted to the wider trends of 1990s and 2000s by embracing new media like DVDs and streaming video. In 2005, Playboy ventured into reality television, further bolstering the brand while further undermining the idyll Hefner had based it upon. “Hefner leased expensive cars for his girlfriends to keep up appearances, but he refused to buy them cars outright in case it gave them too much independence. He did, however, pay for their plastic surgery,” writes Sophie Gilbert in her Atlantic obituary of Hefner. Later revelations about life with and around Hefner made clear his form of sexual liberation turned into another form of control.
Just a couple years ago, in a desperate attempt to stem its decline, Playboy even gave up on what had made it a publishing titan, nude photos, finally ceding sex to the internet. “That battle has been fought and won,” then-CEO Scott Flanders told the New York Times. “You’re now one click away from every sex act imaginable for free. And so it’s just passé at this juncture.”
Its circulation is still a substantial 673,000, but at its peak it was immense, and its peak was specifically the November 1972 issue, which sold almost 7,200,000 copies. It was everywhere, and one of the places it ended up was a computer lab at the University of Southern California, where computer scientists would put it to work in a technology that would be part of the magazine’s downfall: the digitization of images, and how to transmit them.
The lab was the Signal Image and Processing Institute, then just two years old, and one of the problems its researchers were trying to solve was the then-primitive science of digitally scanning, encoding, and transmitting images. Images, then and now, can require an enormous amount of data to store, and considerable resources to transmit. Veterans of the web will recall when browsers had the option to turn off image-loading; every day I use Adobe Photoshop’s “Save for Web” feature to get a high-quality image at minimum size. That requires complex math: How much information can you lose before an image starts to look bad?
Today SIPI maintains a database of standard test images that researchers use in image processing, and one of them is the Lena (or Lenna) image. It’s a safe-for-work-cropped headshot of a Playboy model named Lena Soderberg, née Sjööblom, a Swede who was living in Chicago when she posed for the November 1972 issue (Playboy called her ”Lenna,” to reflect the correct pronunciation of her name). The researchers took her picture from the magazine in the lab and ran it through a Muirhead wirephoto scanner—which probably looked something like this—a tool used by photographers to transmit photos over phone lines. The famous photo of a young girl, Kim Phúc, fleeing a napalm attack during the Vietnam War in 1972, was transmitted with a Muirhead machine.
Why Lena? First, the photo was there; there were more than seven million copies floating around. “They had tired of their stock of usual test images, dull stuff dating back to television standards work in the early 1960s. They wanted something glossy to ensure good output dynamic range, and they wanted a human face,” writes Jamie Hutchinson in the IEEE Professional Communication Society Newsletter. Humans are good at looking at pictures of humans; we’re attuned to the details of faces, so people looking at compressed versions of her image would be able to notice the fine details of what worked, and what didn’t....MOREAlso at Chicago Mag:
RIP Hugh Hefner: From a Hyde Park Card Table to a Media Empire
The man who famously parlayed $8,000 into the Playboy empire died today at 91. We look back at what he meant to Chicago, and what Chicago meant to him.
A little more than eight years ago, when we were casting about at Chicago for a feature story to accompany a “sex and love” package, I suggested a piece on Playboy’s halcyon days in the city where it all began....MORE