John Kouns

John Kouns

Portrait of John Kouns looking down at his camera

John Kouns’s photography of seminal moments in American history often appears un-credited in history books and films. He was present at some of the most iconic events of the Farmworker Movement, the Black Freedom Movement, and the Peace Movement in the 1960s and 1970s. His images broaden and deepen our understanding by showing the chorus of voices that created these movements.

Born in Alameda, California, in 1929, John Alexander Kouns grew up in San José. He went into the Navy for two years during the Korean War, and learned photography. In the late 1950s, he studied at New York Institute of Photography, where he met and was inspired by Eugene Smith. After working for a couple of years for the news agency UPI in San Francisco, he became a successful industrial photographer who practiced, on the side, humanistic documentary photography.

John Kouns Speaks About His Work

Kouns was committed to being part of social movements while earning a living as a commercial photographer. He described his approach as “freelancing for food and documenting for the soul.” In 1961, he joined the labor union CIO and went to Tulare County in the Visalia area. With people from the California Migrant Ministry, he visited and photographed farm-labor camps, and he did a photo series on cotton-picking work. In 1963, he traveled to and photographed the March on Washington.

Children gleaning onions, California, 1961. Photo by John Kouns.

Later, while in Birmingham, he photographed the aftermath of bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church that killed four young girls. In Selma, he photographed the struggle for civil rights from 1963 to 1965, including two of the three marches from Selma to Montgomery. After his work in the South, Kouns drove to Delano and joined the march to Sacramento organized by the National Farm Workers Association.
For 300 miles, over two weeks in 1966, he photographed the entire peregrinación. “We started with less than 100 in Delano and it ended up with at least 10,000 people,” he said. “The march itself grew day by day, by day.” During more than a decade, he documented major events of the farmworker movement, including César Chávez’s first fast in 1968, the first UFW Convention in 1973, the Gallo Boycott march of 1975, and many others.

William King and marchers walking on the road during the march to Sacramento, 1966. Photo by John Kouns.

John Kouns Talks About His Photographs


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