Bookmark and Share




Main navigation

About: Phantasm Photographic Presevation Project: A Photographic Record of the University of Illinois

Phantasm: About


About Phantasm

The UIHistories Phantasm Photographic Preservation Project site (originally known as UIPhotos) is an ongoing research project at the University of Illinois, exploring a new take on the traditional notion of historical documentation. Rather than documenting a space through words, it uses exhaustive photography to capture a constant stream of images showcasing the evolution of the University of Illinois since 2004. More than 80,000 images capture the myriad changes of the University over this time, preserving a "photographic time capsule" of the institution as it moves forward. It was created by Kalev Leetaru ( as part of his undergraduate thesis work in computer science and has grown ever since as part of his doctoral studies. The technology powering this site was developed by Kalev Leetaru and Alan Craig at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, but the content is a result of a student project and is not managed or produced by NCSA or by the Office of Public Affairs at the University of Illinois. Read the First Annual Report (2005) for more details on how the project first came to be.


The Technology

The technology underlying the site is called Phantasm and is a cutting-edge image cataloging and management system designed from the ground up to address the needs of large-scale professional image repositories. Designed by Kalev Leetaru and Alan Craig of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, the Phantasm technology combines advanced cataloging technologies with autonomous image ranking and management systems and a novel rights-management suite. These technologies operate in concert on the Phantasm site, showcasing a tour-de-force of image management technologies.


The History

The Phantasm project traces its genesis to the early months of 2003, when I upgraded my cell phone to one of those "picture phones" with a 640x480 VGA resolution. I immediately began snapping photos of everything in sight and at once I was taken with the photography bug. Several months later I decided it was finally time to get a full-fledged camera to enable me to take high-quality photos. So, I purchased an HP945, and on November 19, 2003 it arrived and I took my first 100 photos that day. Among my first photographs were my family and a tree in our front yard backlit against the setting sun. I was enchanted by this new toy and that evening took photos of Beckman and the Advanced Computation Building on campus. Over the coming months I was always running around campus taking photos of various sights on campus.

After several months of taking photos on the UIUC campus, I realized that I had a fairly comprehensive collection of imagery of central campus, stretching along the routes that I took to class and the major public areas of campus. Thinking that this could be a very useful resource to someone needing photographs of campus, I went online to see what other offerings of campus imagery existed. I was shocked to discover that there were only two major collections, one of which charged for its images, and the other that provided only a small handful of imagery on selected campus buildings. Both collections were very underdeveloped both in the period of time they represented and the areas of campus they covered. It was then that I decided to do what no-one else had: to systematically photograph the entire UIUC campus and capture its existance over a set of months, creating a "photographic time capsule" of campus.

As I began focusing more intently on the subjects of my photographs, I began noticing little details of campus buildings that I had never seen in my previous years at the University. I started becoming very interested in the history of campus and how it had come to be. At the same time I became acutely aware of the almost daily destruction wrought upon our campus landmarks, from water damage at Kenny Gym, to the continued demolition of the century-old hand-painted murals in Altgeld. I realized that not only was I capturing campus for the enjoyment of people today, but I was establishing the foundations of a historical record that would illustrate in exquisite detail the state of campus in 2003-2004 and preserve for all eternity the past that was being so rapidly lost.

Thus was born the Campus Photographic Preservation Project in June 2004. The focus of my project had shifted from merely capturing campus buildings, to attempting to create a historical record of them as well. Thus, rather than simply taking a few beautiful photos of each building from its main entrance, I would go beyond those selected "public relations photos" to document the entire building, photographing it from every angle and even walking its entire interior, looking for any interesting angle that I should capture for this historical record. On May 21, 2004 I presented an independant study proposal to Professor Vernon Burton of the History Department to continue the project under his guidance. By working with a history professor, I hoped to learn more about what historians look for when they research the past, with the idea of tailoring my preservation-minded photographs to the specific needs of historians, giving future researchers the exact images that they need.

In late May 2004 I had finally come to the conclusion that my HP945 camera was not powerful enough for the demands I was placing on it, and so in early June 2004, a new Nikon D70 DSLR arrived in my mailbox. It arrived just in time to travel with me to Australia, where I took more than 5,700 photographs of Syndey and Melbourne.

On July 18, 2004 I spent nearly eight hours sweeping through the western border of campus, capturing everything in sight. After another thirty minutes spent hurriedly photographing the last few scattered buildings on campus that I had not yet finished, I was done. As of 6:30PM that evening, I had photographed every single building on the UIUC campus.

After I had finished photographing the entire campus, my work was far from done. I now needed to categorize and label all of my photos. Nearly nine months of photographing campus had left me with more than 25,000 photographs filed only by date. Over a period of about two weeks I would spent an hour or two a day pouring over the images and categorizing them, tagging them by building, time of day, whether they had people or snow, and several other attributes. This was performed using a new software tool that Alan Craig and I had developed at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications.

By September 2004 enough people were asking to see the photographic collection that it had become apparent that I needed to make the images available on a Web site. At 6:45PM on September 19, 2004, the Phantasm site made its debut to a selected audience, with more than 30,000 photographs.

As the first visitors to the site began browsing through the images, it rapidly became apparent that the sheer volume of photographs was making it extremely difficult to find exactly the images one was interested in and to handle rights-management as visitors downloaded the photographs. A technology was needed to dynamically manage the collections, ranking and sorting images automatically. The technology also needed to handle rights-management, performing licensing and use tracking, and integrating this information back into the automatic management of the collections. Phantasm was born out of these needs, providing a suite of integrated technologies that combined the powerful cataloging and expert management capabilities of our earlier software with advanced automatic management and rights-managements facilities.

The new Phantasm technology allowed me to expand the site from being purely photos of the Urbana-Champaign campus, to include national and international collections as well. Five years later, on September 23, 2009, at 9:10PM, the new version of the Phantasm site, the one you are reading today, made its public debut. From its simple beginnings, Phantasm has grown to fill a desperate need for a historical archive of University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign images, and at the same time, present a vision for a site that shall serve as a historical record of campus life through the years. Through documenting other campuses and national and international destinations, we hope to capture the memories and experiences of those who walk the halls of our Alma Mater, to create a record not only of their local experiences, but of the world around them. Won't you help us realize this vision?

Kalev Leetaru, December 20, 2009.