In April of 2016, photographer and curator Naomi Shersty attended the funeral of Tom Kutchera, former owner of Empire Fish Company and amateur photographer. She discovered two albums of portraits by Tom, taken between the 1960s and ‘80s, that captured Empire Fish’s workers who supplied fish to Milwaukee’s many fish fries and restaurants. That discovery led her to turn these portraits of a “work family” into a photo exhibit. And now, Tom’s sons, Joe and Andrew, have turned the exhibit, photos, and a manuscript that Tom left behind into a book – Faces of a Fish Empire – that tell the story behind their father’s portraits as well as the decline of commercial fishing on Lake Michigan.
This visual history of Empire Fish and commercial fishing exhibit tell a larger story beyond a single company. It captures the anthropological changes of Milwaukee: its culture, food, religion, and demographics. On a larger scale, it embodies the incredible changes in technology (freezers, transportation, and computers) and the transformation in our relationship to Lake Michigan and the Great Lakes.
Photographs by Tom Kutchera
Written by Joe Kutchera
Research by Michael Timm
Designed by Andrew Kutchera
Curated by Naomi Shersty, Suzette Lopez, and Chris Sentz
Traveling Photography Exhibit
Portrait Society Gallery, August – November 2016
“Art, history, and science form a winning combination in this unique book of Wisconsin lore. Faces of a Fish Empire is a portrait, both visual and historical, of a unique family business, but it uses the lens of family to focus on two larger stories: the changing face of the seafood business and the declining fortunes of Lake Michigan’s commercial fishing industry.”
– John Gurda, author and historian
Book Launch Presentation and Party
Milwaukee Public Central Library
Rare Books Room (2nd Floor)
814 W Wisconsin Ave, Milwaukee, WI 53233
Author Joe Kutchera will present the story behind the photos and the research on the demise of commercial fishing on Lake Michigan, which has almost entirely disappeared, especially in the southern half of Lake Michigan.
Many thanks to the Wisconsin Marine Historical Society for hosting this exhibit and curating a key portion of the show featuring photos of Milwaukee’s former fishermen and fishing boats.
Table of Contents
I The Story Behind This Book – 13
II Labor through a Fresh Lens: Portraits by Tom Kutchera – 21
III Portraits 1950s –60s – 25
IV Empire Fish Picnic circa 1960 – 47
V Portraits 1970s–80s – 65
VI A Family Business in a Century of Change: The History of Empire Fish Company – 85
VII Commercial Fishing in Milwaukee and Wisconsin: A Century of Decline – 121
VIII View Toward the Future – 140
IX Note About Our Research – 141
X Bibliography – 142
XI Recommended Reading – 146
XII Acknowledgments – 147
XIII About the Contributors – 148
XIV Closing Recipe – 151