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

It is also significant historically, she adds. As early as the 1890s, women were earning a living from photography, which they could learn through books, without the help of academies that wouldn't admit them. The trade became a respectable alternative to the traditional female jobs of schoolteacher and nanny. "Bunny Yeager's books are part of that larger story," asserts Tucker. "They even include patterns for making women's clothes, how to cut a cleavage blouse, for example. They are wonderfully direct, unlike anything a man would ever do, because they take the mystery out of photography. They also show that Bunny Yeager was a good, practical businesswoman as well as a great photographer."

The book was published at the peak of Bunny's career as a glamour photographer, a career that can be traced back to the late Forties, when Yeager began modeling on Miami Beach for pinup shutterbugs such as Hans Hannau. His garish color postcards of Yeager, clad in one of her own bikini creations and reclining against a piece of driftwood or standing ankle-deep in the surf, sold rapidly during the postwar years not only in Miami, with its large population of former servicemen, but outside Florida as part of the promotion of the state as a subtropical paradise with an abundance of ripe fruit.

Yeager proved early on that she was far too self-willed to spend her life as a beach lollipop. She enrolled with her bodybuilder boyfriend in a photography course at Lindsey-Hopkins, a vocational school located downtown until its demise in the early Fifties. There she quickly acquired the basics of the craft while continuing to model on the side. Her big break came when photographer Roy Pinney learned about her studies and proclaimed her "the world's prettiest photographer" on the August 1952 cover of U.S. Camera magazine. After the article appeared, agents and photo magazines began clamoring for examples of her work, and Yeager was happy to oblige.

Her photograph of Betty Page wearing only a Santa's hat and kneeling beside a Christmas tree was chosen by Playboy for its January 1954 centerfold. In all, Yeager shot eight centerfolds for the magazine, working directly under Hugh Hefner's supervision and entertaining the magnate on a 1958 visit to Miami. In the Fifties Yeager also began publishing books, including The Art of Glamour Photography, Bunny Yeager's Photo Studies, and Photographing the Female Figure (which went into three printings and sold more than 300,000 copies). But it was How I Photograph Myself that landed her on the Tonight Show in 1966, to chat with Johnny Carson:

YEAGER: I started out as a model, but I'm the curious type, and every time I had my photographs taken, I wanted to see what they looked like, so I'd go in the darkroom with the photographer [laughter] and see how they came out.

CARSON: See how things developed, right?
Playing the good-natured sex kitten, Yeager laughed along with the audience, once again offering an image of herself to suit the situation. But even as she basked in brief television fame, her work with Playboy was falling off. "Photographs of women were becoming more explicit, and I just couldn't keep up with it," she says now. "Didn't want to, either. It didn't matter -- I still had my photography studio. It just meant I wasn't shooting for major magazines."

While raising her two daughters, Yeager continued to supply occasional glamour photographs to smaller magazines. The work finally dried up in the late Seventies, at about the same time her husband of more than 27 years, Bud Irwin, died. A year later Yeager remarried and settled into a suburban lifestyle far removed from Playboy parties and television appearances. These days she and her husband are most likely to turn up singing in the choir at Faith Lutheran Church in Hialeah.

Call Bunny Yeager's Miami Shores studio and you're likely to get an answering machine with a message urging you to "have a sunshiny day, okay?" Those who know Yeager say she takes her own advice. "She's always smiling and upbeat, and it shows in her work," says the Center for Visual Communication's Barry Fellman. Several women who have been encouraged over the years by Yeager couldn't speak more fondly of her. "Bunny started me out in this business," offers Dana Mark, a former model for Yeager. "At the time I started modeling, women just stayed home and had babies. Bunny taught me that I could have anything. She was a real inspiration to me and made a big difference in my life."

But Yeager, so adept at manipulating images -- including her own -- in front of a lens, seems to be having a harder time framing her life behind the camera. She was obviously trying to shape her future earlier this year when she began talking with representatives of the German publishing house Benedikt Taschen about a book of her work. "I was trying to push photographs of girls of the 90s that I'm working on," she remembers, "but they said, 'No, we want to re-establish your name with the older photographs.' So here we go again -- I'm just dying to show off new things and everybody wants the old photographs. I don't get it. I haven't changed my method of shooting -- it's the same old style."

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