Virginie Lamarche calls her untitled photographs at Schneider “empty narratives”: though they hint at stories, the people in them aren’t really doing anything. One image shows about a dozen women in white tank tops, perhaps stretching or just sprawled on the floor, against a mirrored background that suggests a gym. Their reflections don’t match what they’re doing in front of the mirrors, though: she created the panoramic background here, and in two other pictures, by digitally pasting images together. She also used two women in different poses to create the group. For a picture of kids playing, she assembled the backdrop–an impossibly wide, seemingly endless two-story apartment house–from various shots of a single building in Carbondale and used two children for all the figures. She felt she didn’t need to manipulate the parking lot in another image (“the duplication was naturally there”), but its many figures in red jackets standing or lying on the asphalt are the same two women. This sort of work echoes Renaissance paintings showing multiple views of a narrative within the same piece–Hans Memling’s Scenes From the Passion of Christ depicts a dozen scenes related to the Crucifixion. But unlike these earlier images, Lamarche’s pieces have no narrative movement.

A French native, Lamarche was fascinated by American films and TV as a child; road movies gave her a sense of the vastness of American spaces. “I love France,” she says, “but the possibilities of what you can become in life are more limited. Everything is smaller and narrower. In America it seems easier to move from one place to another, to change your life, to reinvent yourself.” She visited this country several times beginning at age 15, but she’s lived here only since 2003, when she moved to Carbondale for grad school at Southern Illinois University.

Road trips with friends changed Lamarche’s ideas about the American landscape. Shopping centers stood out in the midwestern flatlands, and she became fascinated by the repetition. “The motel chains and restaurants are always the same, and usually the Wal-Mart is arranged the same way next to the parking lot. I thought the repetition was amazing, and in some ways I was attracted to it. These clusters of stores were nonplaces–they could be anywhere. In France, if you drive an hour you’re in a completely different region in terms of topography, cuisine, even the styles of the houses.” While she noticed that visitors to urban malls tended to move quickly, in suburban malls there were “these groups of people just wandering about,” and their aimlessness contributed to the creation of her characters. “I’m trying to represent people who wander and wait in vain,” she says, “who are lacking perspective and purpose.”

Though Lamarche has long been interested in rendering the figure, she majored in English in college and later lived and worked in London. But she didn’t really like the prospect of teaching English in France, and as soon as she entered a photography program in Paris in 2000, she knew it was the medium she wanted to work in. She also has an ongoing interest in the surreal: while in Paris, she projected photos of nudes on nude friends, then photographed them. She says she was “trying to suggest looking inside the body, under the skin,” and also thinking of dismemberment: “I think I had seen too many surrealist photographs.” European art cinema also became an influence then.

Lamarche, who’s been reading existentialist philosophy since high school, sees her work as a mix of American and European traits. “The duplication I first saw in the U.S., but the idea of people seeming vacant, of an empty reality, is also a European one. There’s a French word, l’errance, which means ‘wandering aimlessly,’ but which you can interpret in a variety of ways–it can also be internal wandering, or the idea of taking a trip without knowing where you will go. For me, my work is an allegory for existence.”

Virginie Lamarche

When: Through 9/1

Where: Schneider, 230 W. Superior

Info: 312-988-4033