The Story

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.

5 portraits from Faces of a Fish Empire

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.

 Empire Fish original storefront


Faces of a Fish Empire


Photographs by Tom Kutchera
Written by Joe Kutchera
Research by Michael Timm
Designed by Andrew Kutchera
Curated by Naomi Shersty


Traveling Photography Exhibition

Portrait Society Gallery, September 2 – November 6, 2016

Milwaukee Public Library, July 2017

Door County Maritime Museum, July 6 – October 28, 2018


Advance Praise

“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

Saturday, July 8 at 2:00 PM – 5:30 PM CDT

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


© 2017 Joe Kutchera


See here for a visual preview:

Faces of a Fish Empire 1