by Coleen Singer at Sssh.com.
Bunny Yeager, a model turned pin-up photographer who helped jump-start the career of then-unknown Bettie Page and was the first iconic photographer for Playboy Magazine, died Sunday, her agent Ed Christin said. She was 85 years old.
Born in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, U.S. Yeager became one of the most photographed models in Miami. After retiring from modeling, she began her career behind the camera. She met Bettie Page in 1954, and took most of the photographs of her that year. Along with photographer Irving Klaw, Yeager played a role in helping to make Page famous, particularly with her photos in Playboy magazine.
Yeager’s legacy is her cultural impact, from pin-up photography and fashion, helping to popularize the bikini, and influencing other artists such as Cindy Sherman, who read Yeager’s guides on photographing nudes and making self-portraits, Christin said.
“Anyone in Miami in the 1950s who wanted a bikini would come to her, and she’d make one,” he said.
I had the honor and pleasure to meet Bunny about 15 years ago at a very early Adult Internet trade show held at the old-school rat pack style Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami, Florida. We had a nice lunch with another photographer and over the course of 90 minutes, she was a 70 years young non-stop ball of energy, anecdotes and advice for me as a young photographer just getting started. Much discussion of good lighting being of the utmost importance, and her almost vociferous preference of Kodak 35mm film over Fuji Film stock (“Yes, Kodak is a little grainy, but Fuji tends to make skin-tone blue. Who wants to look at blue naked women?”)
Yeager became famous for making everyday women, from stay-at-home mothers to airline attendants, feel comfortable enough to bare it all. Her photos of Page in a leopard-print bathing suit standing next to a real cheetah are still well-known today.
“They all wanted to model for me because they knew that I wouldn’t take advantage of them,” Yeager told The Associated Press during a 2013 interview. “And I wouldn’t push them to do nude if they didn’t want to do nudes. It wasn’t a day when nude photography was prevalent.”
She published about a dozen books and her work has been displayed in art galleries across the world. Besides the iconic Page photo, Yeager also shot stills of the Swedish actress Ursula Andress, who starred in the 1962 James Bond film “Dr. No” in a white bikini, a knife sheathed at her side.
Yeager said she had few requests when several magazines began to struggle or went out of business over the last decade, but her career returned to the spotlight in 2010 when the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh held an exhibition of her work. There was also an exhibition in Miami in 2013.
“I still get that little tingle when I see the photos on the wall,” she said of the latter-day attention.
“I’m still feeling like a little child and excited over everything new that comes along in my life,” Yeager said in 2013. “I don’t know where it will lead to yet, but it sounds good to me.”
In popular media, Yeager was played by Sarah Paulson in the 2005 film The Notorious Bettie Page. She was also featured on a CNN story about the 60th anniversary of the bikini. When Bunny appeared on the urbane television program What’s My Line in 1957, she was asked if both men and women could enjoy her services. She correctly answered yes, and the panel was stumped.
In 2005, Cult Epics released the DVD 100 Girls by Bunny Yeager, a documentary with behind-the-scenes footage on Yeager’s photo sessions with Page and other pin-up models.
In early 2010, the Warhol Museum held the first exhibition of Bunny’s work. Most of the photographs in the exhibit came from Bunny’s book “How I Photograph Myself” published by A.S.Barnes & Co. in 1964.
In a 2012 article in “A Continuous Lean”, David Coggins wrote,
Bunny Yeager’s photographs are direct and bracing. They remind us of the basic power of controlling the image and the elemental act of provocation. It should be mentioned that she was a pinup girl and named “world’s prettiest photographer” of 1953.
In the 1950’s photography could rightly be a provocative act. Being photographed was an event not a default setting. You dressed (or undressed) and vamped for it. Bunny’s shots of Bettie Page will certainly be familiar to aficionados of the genre, but the shots of herself are just as engaging. She explored the power of the medium from both sides of the lens. She defied conventions then, and her work still focuses our attention. It’s about women in costumes with contours, and the attraction remains decades after the fact.
At the end of our lunch date at the Fontainebleau, I asked Bunny what she thought about this new “Internet Thing”. Without missing a beat, she replied “I think it’s a great opportunity for people to steal our work and give it away for free.”
You sure hit the nail on the head there, Bunny.
Godspeed, and Rest In Peace.