“The couch is where we gather. We’ve watched every possible show on it, and there have been endless performances and stories told from there. When the girls were younger and would wake up with a fever in the middle of the night, we’d sit with them on the couch, letting its cool upholstery soothe us. It has been through so much with us, especially during the pandemic. It was the one place where we could all fit as a family.” Thirty-nine-year-old photographer Julia Chang-Lomonico is reflecting on the reasons for beginning her project The Couch. As a collection of images centred around the sofa in her family’s living room space, the series reveals the infinite ways we inhabit and adapt our private spaces—from gathering for naps and sleepy mornings, to playing together and building pillow forts.
As a former interior designer, Chang-Lomonico has always been interested in such themes, but, she says, “it wasn’t until after becoming a parent that I truly became aware of the multitude of ways humans, especially young humans, live and interact with objects and space. Children have a way of finding 50 more ways of using a single object beyond its intended purpose. Life happens, messes are made and cleaned up, toys evolve, shoes are grown out of, things are broken, repaired and then broken again. But the couch is one of the few things in the house (in our house anyway) that seems to be a constant.”
Based in northern New Jersey, Chang-Lomonico grew up in the suburbs with her older sister and her Taiwanese immigrant parents. “Like many young immigrant families, money was extremely tight, especially in the beginning, and both my parents worked extremely hard to make life for us in this country,” she remembers. “I think because they were immigrants, they instilled a very strong work ethic in both me and my sister, and since I was the first person in my family to be born in the United States, I remember my parents repeatedly saying, ‘if you work extra hard, you could become the the President of the United States if you wanted to.’”
That being said, her drive for academic success did not come to her easily because, right from the beginning, she was much more interested in creative pursuits. “As a child, I had a grand imagination. I loved to dance and draw just about anything and everything I could. I loved to sing and make up fantastical stories with the few dolls and stuffed animals I owned. My sister and I would make epic forts and shelters out of living room and dining room furniture, using ALL the pillows and blankets in the house. These elaborate setups often stayed up for days, if not weeks, before our parents would finally make us take it down. These memories definitely influenced my work when creating The Couch series,” she says.
Her journey into photography began when she was in her early twenties, after being given a camera as a graduation present and taking a trip out west. “It was like the perfect opportunity to play with it,” she says. “Up until that point, I had used all other mediums to express myself, including words, music, dance, pencil, paint, but they were all skills that had taken years of continuous study and practice to successfully convey what I had in my mind’s eye. Photography, especially digital photography, was so instantaneously gratifying to be able to express my point of view.” It was completely refreshing, she says, to see her ideas materialize within seconds.
Chang-Lomonico began photographing moments on her couch on and off at first, when her children were still babies, but then when COVID-19 hit and the family went into quarantine, she began to photograph the couch a lot more, noticing how pivotal this one piece of furniture was within her home. “Our decision to homeschool our children this past year also increased our interactions with the couch,” she says. “I do plan to continue photographing this project as long as I can, ideally until our children are grown and have moved out of the house—but realistically, as long as my family allows me to.” In terms of her process, she believes the way to achieve the most powerful images is not to stage or direct scenes at all. “There were always moments happening on the couch, I just needed to increase my chances of catching them without influencing the scene. I placed a piece of blue painter’s tape on the floor where I wanted my frame to be, kept my camera close by and just let life happen.”
Some of Chang-Lomonico’s biggest inspirations have come from books she loved as a child—another nod towards the way many of us will curl up on a couch and lose ourselves in literature. “The couch reminds me of Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree,” she says. Like The Giving Tree, the couch offers everything it has of itself without any inhibition. My takeaway from the book used to be that the boy—eventually an old man—was just completely and utterly selfish, consumed by his ego. But I guess that’s how unconditional love and support works. My hope is that The Couch is an homage to the idea that unconditional love and support, even from an inanimate object like a couch, is the birthplace of some pretty spectacular moments.”
In some ways, aspects of Chang-Lomonico’s project are reminiscent of classic family-based work by photographers such as Sally Mann, who documented the passing of time among her loved ones in a slow and nuanced way. But there is also a conceptual link to the way photographers have focused their lens on one place, and recorded it as it changes over time—Nicholas Nixon, for instance, and his recurring portraits of four sisters across forty years, or Carrie Mae Weems’ The Kitchen Table Series, or even Corinne Day and the way she photographed models again and again on the sofa in her London flat. There’s a sentimental sort of comfort to working this way, and it’s something that Chang-Lomonico has thought a lot about. “The theme of time passing and trying to freeze time has always been something I’ve been interested in for my work, and The Couch series is no different,” she says. “It’s easy to remember big milestones in life, but for me it’s the small moments and interactions that inform us and shape us into who we are when we show up for major moments in life.”
To photograph one’s loved ones is always going to be an emotive act, and for Chang-Lomonico, this has been an intimate experiment in creating an alternative family album. “My family is probably one of my biggest muses, and I have photographed them a lot over the years. To me, my photographs act as second-hand witnesses to the life our family leads.”