The photographer responsible for thrusting Bettie Page into the spotlight was herself a pinup model. Bunny Yeager, a gorgeous, statuesque blonde from Pennsylvania, died this weekend in North Miami at the age of 85. Her agent, Ed Christin, said that the cause of her death was congestive heart failure.
Born Linnea Eleanor Yeager on March 13, 1929, she spent her childhood and adolescence near Pittsburgh in Wilkinsburg. Her family relocated to Miami when Yeager was 17 years old. She had always considered herself to be shy, but in Miami, Yeager was able to give herself a new identity.
Despite her shyness, she was photogenic. Yeager enrolled in modeling school, and too to calling herself Bunny. She was inspired to choose the name by a 1945 film with Lana Turner, Weekend at the Waldorf. Before long, Yeager was hired for jobs all over Miami. She entered, and won, several beauty pageants. Some of her titles were: Miss Personality of Miami Beach, Miss Trailer Coach of Dade County and even Queen of Miami.
She found that making copies of her portfolio cost more money than she cared to spend. In order to save on this expense,Yeager enrolled in night school and took a photography class which taught her the skills to be able to copy her own prints. While she was still in her early twenties, a men’s magazine called Eye bought her first assignment which was of a model posing with cheetahs.
It was in 1954 that Yeager and Bettie Page met one another. At that time, Page was best known in New York, for modeling in bondage shots taken by Paula and Irving Klaw, a sister-and-brother photography team. Though brief, the work they did together garnered a thousand pictures. In an interview with The Miami Herald, Yeager said that Page was very beautiful. When she told her that she wanted to photograph her in the nude, Page assured her that since she sunbathed naked, she had a tan all over her body. Yeager is quotes as saying that she did indeed, “even behind her knees and all the places you wouldn’t think.”
The photo that got the team into Playboy Magazine was of Page dressed as Santa Claus, minus the suit and the “bowl full of jelly”. The hat she wore was sewn by Yeager. The photograph was published in the January 1955 issue and Playboy paid Yeager $100 for the image.
As irony would have it, in her attempt to save money, Yeager found a more lucrative career. She became one of the most sought-after photographers of the 1950s and 1960s. Her images of females, either nude or semi-nude, upgraded pinup erotica to a high art.
Yeager took great efforts to choose perfect locations, came up with creative concepts and clothed her models in inexpensive yet flattering costumes. Yeager often shot her work in the brilliance of the South Florida sunlight. In order to get her subjects to appear extra-luminous, she would add flash when taking her photographs.
In 1964, Yeager wrote a book explaining how she went about the task of self-portraiture. Cindy Sherman, famous for her own brand of self-portraits, cites the book, How I Photograph Myself and Yeager as having heavily influenced her work.
In Pittsburgh, The Andy Warhol Museum put together an exhibit of Yeager’s self portraits, Bunny Yeager: The Legendary Queen of the Pin Up. In 2010, Bunny Yeager finally got the first museum show ever in her career. Last year, the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale had an exhibit entitled, Bunny Yeager: Both Sides of the Camera. There is also a book, due out in October, with over 250 unpublished pictures by Yeager, titled, Bettie Page: Queen of Curves.
As a female photographer, Yeager could do what many male photographers perhaps could not. Posing nude is a vulnerable act that requires much trust between model and photographer. Yeager had a way of making her models feel safe, comfortable and, more importantly, beautiful in a luminous way, instead of a meat-hanging-in-the-butcher-shop way. Bunny Yeager has died after a long and successful career, but her inspiration and photographic legacy will live on.
By Stacy Lamy