Queen of the Centerfold

Bunny Yeager was a Miami model -- and an innovative pioneer who conquered the male-dominated world of cheesecake photography in the Fifties

"She wants to capitalize on the Betty Page interest," Kroll says dismissively. "It's not that interesting to me. I would much prefer to see the Museum of Modern Art seeking one of those prints for their permanent collection than the making of tea kettles with a Betty Page photo taken by Bunny Yeager.

"There is a fascination with Betty Page that has something to do with Bunny's photography but it really has more to do with the nature of [Page] as a model," continues Kroll, a photographer himself. "She could be the girl next door or the bitch down the street. When you've photographed as many models as I have, you realize that that versatility is unique and greatly prized. A lot of that success belongs to Betty. Bunny's work and talent, on the other hand, are much broader than Betty Page."

A number of people with a knowledge of both women's careers agree with Kroll's assessment. "I wouldn't give the Page phenomenon too much credit for a renewed interest in Bunny's work," Greg Theakston advises by phone from his New York office. "With the AIDS tragedy, many people now want to pull back from hardcore representations of sex. Madonna and MTV have spawned a new generation of women in sexy underwear. A lot of men want to see more of it. The pinup pose has made a comeback, and Bunny's work is a prime example of what it's all about. It's clean and sexy and fun."

Theakston says he plans to start a new pinup magazine, Tease, and dedicate an entire issue next year to Yeager's work. "She's that important in the scheme of the pinup world," he says. The magazine, he predicts, will fill an erotic vacuum. "There is no middle ground in America," he maintains. "It's either hard-core porn or very, very soft. You don't see a nipple in Newsweek or Time. Bunny Yeager is one of the best practitioners of titillation. When you want to re-educate the public about an unfamiliar genre, you bring out the masters and let people see someone whose photographs don't just present the image of a woman, but truly affect you."

How Yeager manages to do that is just as fascinating to members of the mainstream art world as it is to an underground editor like Theakston. Eric Kroll points out that Yeager's work demonstrates, among other technical touches, an early understanding of "fill flash," using a camera flash outdoors to fill in shadows, like those under a model's eyes, for example. "These days fill flash is no big deal," he comments. "Bunny's achievement was doing it early on."

Gallery director Barry Fellman, who organized a 1992 exhibition of Yeager's work at the Center for Visual Communication in Coral Gables, maintains that Yeager's artistry springs from her unique perspective. "She was a consummate technician who knew her equipment and craft just as well as any man but had an outlook and sensitivity about her models that no man could match," he offers. "In Bunny's work there is a special quality of relationship between two women that a man can't achieve. There is a direct, positive way of seeing the female form. The photographs are innocent, lively, up-front, and smiling. She understood that part of capturing the soul and essence of a person is to make people feel at ease and shine through as they are."

As a model, Yeager recalls, she learned what was painful about a photography session and tried to eliminate it when she was behind the camera. "One thing I hated was those big solar reflectors, because it was like taking a mirror and shining it in your eyes," she says. "I wouldn't use them because they hurt me so badly, and I didn't want to do that to someone else. Another thing photographers did to me was to make me hold the pose too long, until my arm or some other part of my body ached. I kept thinking to myself, 'Why do they have to be so slow?' Well, I got a reputation for shooting very quickly. One or two hours with me was like working all day for somebody else. It was very relaxed."

Curator of the photographic collection at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Anne Tucker is no great devotee of cheesecake photography, but she says Yeager's work nevertheless strikes her as special. "I look at cheesecake pictures by men and it makes my back hurt," she says. "The women are holding the most inconceivable poses. You rarely see that in Bunny's work."

Tucker is in the process of acquiring at least one, perhaps two, of Yeager's self-portraits, first published in the 1964 book, How I Photograph Myself, for her museum's permanent collection. "I think the book is an important early example of a woman trying to control her own image," Tucker says. The photograph she covets most shows Yeager seated on a stool beside her Burke and James eight-by-ten-inch camera, her teased platinum-blond hair falling over her shoulder onto a tight red body stocking that is pinched at the waist by a gold lame belt. She wears only one garish high-heeled shoe; the other one rests in front of her, kicked off. A cord tied in a bow on her big toe leads to the camera's shutter. Yeager is about to take a picture of herself, and yet she looks away from the camera connected to her foot toward the one she doesn't touch, the one we don't see, which of course is the one actually photographing her. Her expression clearly aims for sex kitten, but falls closer to devouring lioness. "The photograph is hilariously tongue-in-cheek," Tucker laughs. "It's just a delightful image."

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