Saturday, January 21, 2012


When you take an image processing class, you are likely to come across a few standard test images. This image of peppers is extremely common for basic processing.

It has nice bright colors and big blocky features, so it’s pretty easy to work with.

Then you’ll probably want to move on to something with much finer detail, like this baboon.

The high frequency components (small features) make this an excellent contrast to the peppers image. You’ll see how different filters and whatnot work when applied to small details as compared to the large objects.

But in real life, an awful lot of photographs are of people. So you’ll undoubtedly want to try these techniques you’re learning on an image of a person. And you will very likely use this one.

This is a great image in terms of trying different techniques. There are a variety of colors and textures. There are high spatial frequency components with the feathers in her hat and her hair. There are large objects (low spatial frequency components) with her face and her exposed shoulder.

But in the complete original image, she has a whole lot more exposed.

You are looking at Playboy’s Miss November of 1972, Lena Soderberg.

That’s right: a couple of researchers at USC back in the ‘70s were tired of the available test images and so scanned a recent centerfold. This image is now one of the most common images used in both image processing coursework and research. The industry, as I imagine you’re aware, is still predominantly men.

Let that sink in for a minute.

A female student taking an image processing class, surrounded mostly by male classmates and most likely being taught by a male professor, will learn how to do basic manipulations on an image taken from Playboy.

Now, I’m not trying to say that the use of this image is sexist in itself. For one thing, it’s not like it’s immediately obvious where the image came from, and you may be effectively forced to use the image if you’re trying to directly compare your work to someone else’s, and they used that image.

But that fact remains that a male-dominated field uses a Playboy centerfold as one of its standard images, and I find that to be incredibly problematic.

Women in STEM fields have made enormous progress in the last few decades. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t have further to go. Where sexism in STEM was once a stab in the back, it’s now more like death by a thousand papercuts. It’s these countless tiny messages that seem like nothing to worry about when taken individually, but add up to clearly tell women that we don’t belong.

The Guerilla Girls have a poster that asks “Do women have to be naked to get into US museums? Less than 3% of the artists in the Met. Museum are women, but 83% of the nudes are female.”

It would seem that image processing has a similar problem.

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