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


Winner of 2nd Place (Silver) in the “Print / Print Editorial” category in the 11th Annual International Design Awards (IDA)


Traveling Photography Exhibition

Portrait Society Gallery, September 2 – November 6, 2016



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




Presentation Testimonial 

“Our maritime history group had the pleasure of hosting Joe Kutchera and his “Faces of a Fish Empire” presentation at our quarterly Education Night. Joe’s talk was entertaining and lively and he engaged the audience by detailing his book devoted to his family’s fish business. Members came away with a better understanding and knowledge of the changes and challenges faced with the decline of Lake Michigan’s fishing industry. It was a most enjoyable night. We would highly recommend Joe for future programming.”

Barb and Ken Wardius, Board members at Racine Lighthouse and Maritime Preservation Society


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


Scroll through a visual preview here:

Faces of a Fish Empire 1