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We present a new method for compact representation of large image datasets. Our method is based on treating small patches from a 2-D image as matrices as opposed to the conventional vectorial representation, and encoding these patches as sparse projections onto a set of exemplar orthonormal bases, which are learned a priori from a training set. The end result is a low-error, highly compact image/patch representation that has significant theoretical merits and compares favorably with existing techniques (including JPEG) on experiments involving the compression of ORL and Yale face databases, as well as a database of miscellaneous natural images. In the context of learning multiple orthonormal bases, we show the easy tunability of our method to efficiently represent patches of different complexities. Furthermore, we show that our method is extensible in a theoretically sound manner to higher-order matrices (??tensors??). We demonstrate applications of this theory to compression of well-known color image datasets such as the GaTech and CMU-PIE face databases and show performance competitive with JPEG. Lastly, we also analyze the effect of image noise on the performance of our compression schemes.