Faces of a Fish Empire

The story of our book and my father’s traveling photography exhibit starts at his funeral.

Fishmonger with a Camera

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 dramatic changes in commercial fishing on Lake Michigan.

5 portraits from Faces of a Fish Empire

Our Dad’s portraits were never intended to be a photo exhibit. He occasionally took his camera to work to take a few portraits of the employees every week, capturing people impromptu, working on the job, perhaps shortly after telling them a joke or even surprising them with his camera. Photography served as a creative outlet for him but also as a way to connect with employees through something that he enjoyed. During that era of film cameras (before digital photography), he gradually brought the rolls of film to Mike Crivello’s Camera store to be developed. He then posted the best portraits on a pin board, near the employee entrance. Over time, he aggregated the portraits into two photo albums and stored them that way…until Naomi found them.

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
Curated by Naomi Shersty
Designed by Andrew Kutchera
Research by Michael Timm

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


Traveling Photography Exhibit

Wisconsin Maritime Museum, January – November 2025

Wauwatosa Public Library, September 2023

The Rangefinder/Leica Gallery (Chicago), March – April 2019

Milwaukee Public Library, July 2017 – hosted by the Wisconsin Marine Historical Society

Portrait Society Gallery, September 2 – November 6, 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


“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


My Book Presentation



Presentation on Lake Michigan commercial fishing at Michigan Maritime Museum – WSJM.com

“Faces of a Fish Empire” offers unique glimpse into blue collar Milwaukee – OnMilwaukee.com

Tom Kutchera’s photos offer affectionate portrait of Empire Fish workers – Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Empire Fish Preserves a Piece of Wisconsin Maritime History – Tosa Connection

Lake Michigan fish industry is topic of program – The Journal Times


Oral Histories / Book Excerpts

Learning How to Fillet a Fish – by Juan Carrasco

Remembering Russ Anderson (Who Always Had a Joke) – by Jim Laur

Labor through a Fresh Lens: Portraits by Tom Kutchera – by Naomi Shersty


Traveling Exhibit

Preview our photography and research exhibit in the following slideshow:

Faces of a Fish Empire Photography Exhibit



Book Preview

Scroll through the pages of our book here:

Faces of a Fish Empire - The Book


Table of Contents

  1. The Story Behind This Book
  2. Labor through a Fresh Lens: Portraits by Tom Kutchera
  3. Portraits 1950s –60s
  4. Empire Fish Picnic circa 1960
  5. Portraits 1970s–80s
  6. A Family Business in a Century of Change: The History of Empire Fish Company
  7. Commercial Fishing in Milwaukee and Wisconsin: A Century of Decline
  8. View Toward the Future
  9. Note About Our Research
  10. Bibliography
  11. Recommended Reading
  12. Acknowledgments
  13. About the Contributors
  14. Closing Recipe

Free Sample Chapters

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