Faces of a Fish Empire: My Father’s First (Posthumous) Photo Exhibit
“A photographer is like a cod, which produces a million eggs in order that one may reach maturity.”
― George Bernard Shaw, Irish writer and playwright
The story of my father’s first photography exhibit begins at his funeral. My mother, brother, sister and I sorted through thousands of photos, selecting the best ones to display during the visitation with one board of images from each segment of his life: youth, family, travel, and professional, from his many years at Empire Fish Company, a Milwaukee-based wholesale seafood distributor and retail store. At the last minute, we also decided to bring two volumes of portraits of the employees of Empire Fish that my father took during the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s.
Among our many family and friends who attended, Naomi Shersty, a Milwaukee-based photographer, curator and instructor at Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design (MIAD), came as a guest of a friend. She perused the two volumes of portraits and fell in love with them, especially the photos of the women with the 1960’s hairdos. Naomi asked to borrow Volume One to show Debra Brehmer, gallery director at the Portrait Society Gallery. Both saw a tenderness and warmth towards the subjects that is atypical of employee portraits, especially from an owner of a company. Debra agreed to host my father’s first photography exhibit – Faces of a Fish Empire – posthumously, along with two other Milwaukee photographers, Art Elkhorn and Blyth Renate Meier. The show opens five months after his passing.
My father, Tom Kutchera (1932-2016), former owner of Empire Fish and amateur photographer, created this collection of employee portraits over a period of 30 years. Preserved in family photo albums, these portraits honor the individuals who supplied Milwaukee’s numerous Friday Night Fish Fries. Through his humanitarian lens, his portraits celebrate those who don’t often get commemorated: the production workers behind the scenes.
Dad bought his Leica 35mm camera while serving in the U.S. Army in Germany during the mid-1950’s. He taught himself photography during his two years abroad and returned to his hometown of Milwaukee to begin working in the family business, Empire Fish Company. He worked with his father, Harold, and later with his cousin, Jerry. He incorporated his love of photography into his work by taking portraits of its employees from the 1960’s until he retired in 1995. Always a “Renaissance Man,” he furthered his knowledge of photography, art and literature outside of work by reading widely. I remember him telling me that he learned a great deal from the 11 Volumes of the Time-Life Art/Photography Collection, published in 1977. Dad named himself the “Parish Photographer” at St. Benedict the Moor Church, capturing portraits of its church council and musicians, which still hang in its entryway today.
Naomi Shersty curated the exhibit, recreating the atmosphere of an Empire Fish Company picnic during the 1960’s, for the opening party. Naomi is a local artist, who has been making, showing, collaborating and curating artwork for two decades. This past year she has co-programmed The Perspectives Photography Gallery at MIAD. Most recently, her work appeared in “Temporary Resurfacing” on Historic Mitchell Street, and will be included in the upcoming MIAD Faculty Exhibition. Some of her favorite things include storytelling through photography and her weekly radio show on Riverwest Radio.
Faces of a Fish Empire by Tom Kutchera opens at The Portrait Society Gallery on Friday, September 2, from 5 – 8pm, the beginning of Labor Day weekend, and runs through November 6.
The Portrait Society Gallery is located at 207 E. Buffalo Street, Marshall Building, Fifth Floor, Milwaukee, WI 53202.
“Chance is always powerful. Let your hook always be cast; in the pool where you least expect it, there will be fish.”