The instant the statuesque bombshell made her move from posing for the camera to joining the ranks of professional photographers snapping glamor shots, Bunny Yeager's male counterparts were left slavering over her natural talents.
But then Yeager, already South Florida's most photographed model during the late '40s, knew better than any male shutterbug how to pose a woman for maximum effect and how to tell an engaging story through a simple picture.
"I knew my body and women's bodies better than the men did," says Yeager, whose stunning self-portraits from the '50s and '60s will be on view next weekend at the Harold Golen Gallery in Wynwood during the Second Saturday art walk.
The nearly two dozen pictures presented in "The Fabulous Bunny Yeager" have never been exhibited publicly and mark the first gallery show featuring the iconic photographer as its subject.
Yeager's arresting suite of self-portraits includes a picture of the curvy beauty, clad in a frilly black negligee, posing in a swank living room. In another shot, she wears one of her trademark homemade bikinis as she sits atop a fur rug spread before a Roman column inside a stylish bathroom. The setting is the plush Palm Island digs of South Florida tile tycoon Harold Chaskin. "He was a bachelor and let me shoot at his home whenever I wanted," Yeager says.
Yet another image shows the fetching blonde peering straight at the camera, her lips puckered as if blowing a kiss to the viewer, while sitting in a pool. Her shirt is soaked, leaving little to the imagination.
Last year, the contemporary art world finally gave Yeager what many observers thought was long overdue recognition when the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh presented "Bunny Yeager: The Legendary Queen of the Pin-Up," the first museum survey featuring her work as both model and photographer.
The only other major show of her work had taken place in the early '90s, when Barry Fellman, founder of the Center for Visual Communication, staged "Beach Babes Bash." Held in the gallery's old Coral Gables space, the exhibit featured Yeager's photos of Miami models taken on the beach during the '50s. The gallery was filled with sand, beach balls, and period music for the show, Fellman says.
"Bunny was always ahead of her time and the only female photographer in her day doing groundbreaking work," he says. "She is a consummate photographer who understood how to work with women better than most and not only capture their beauty but personalities as well."
Yeager notes she approached photo shoots as if directing a play. "As a successful model, it was easy for me to make the girls I was photographing look great," she says. "For me, making the girls feel comfortable and creating a scene that made the photo come to life was just the natural thing to do."
Born Linnea Eleanor Yeager in 1930 in Pitcairn, a small town outside Pittsburgh, she regularly attended a rundown movie house that featured films from Hollywood's Golden Age. She moved with her family to Miami when she was 17, took a six-week modeling course, and broke into the glamor biz as a model for the Coronet Modeling Agency. She took the name Bunny from Lana Turner's character in the movie Weekend at the Waldorf.
During the late '40s, Yeager began posing for lens men such as Hans Hannau, whose color postcards of the model wading in the Miami Beach surf, wearing a two-piece bathing suit she is credited with inventing, became popular sellers during the postwar years. Yeager also entered numerous local beauty pageants and won more than a dozen titles, including a "Sports Queen" crown that Joe DiMaggio presented to her in 1949.
"It was this huge event, and all the contestants went out to the airport to meet these big sports celebrities as they arrived," Yeager recalls. "Most of the girls were standing around wearing T-shirts and shorts or one-piece bathing suits. But I was wearing a two-piece bathing suit I had sewn myself and made sure I was standing in front of the crowd. When the photographers from the Associated Press and United Press International saw me, they went wild. Of course, when the pictures came out, I was in the center of it, and those pictures made it all over the world."
By the early '50s, Yeager was Miami's most photographed model and was doing fashion shoots for Saks Fifth Avenue, Lillie Rubin, and other high-end shops on Lincoln Road. She needed lots of pictures of herself to promote her career, but purchasing prints from the photographers she worked with was costly. So Yeager took a class at local vocational school Lindsey Hopkins to learn how to develop her own pictures in a darkroom. "At the time, I was dating this blond-haired, blue-eyed bodybuilder who encouraged me to take photography lessons as well," Yeager says.
When she showed her instructor shots of Maria Stinger, Miami's Marilyn Monroe look-alike, that she had taken at a Boca Raton wildlife park called Africa USA, he was impressed and encouraged Yeager to sell them, which she did."It wasn't part of my dream to be a photographer," she says. "I never thought I would wind up doing that."
Soon after, Yeager met Bettie Page and took what many critics regard as the most iconic images of the era's famous pin-up model. Yeager returned to the wildlife park with Page and posed her with a pair of cheetahs, and later photographed her wearing only a Santa hat while decorating a Christmas tree.
"I sent those pictures to Playboy magazine, which had just come out," Yeager recalls. "Hugh Hefner called me and bought those pictures. It became the start of a long relationship, and we have remained friends ever since. We still write each other letters and exchange Christmas cards every year."
Her holiday-themed Page pics were published as the centerfold for Playboy's January 1954 issue, and the photographer went on to lens another eight spreads for the magazine.
Yeager herself graced the pages of Playboy in its May 1955 issue for a seven-page pictorial titled "Double Exposure," depicting Yeager snapping pictures of herself and shooting a model.
"I never posed nude, though," Yeager says. "I only took pictures of myself in skimpy bikinis and revealing outfits I sewed myself."
Her work was soon appearing regularly in Life, Cosmopolitan, Redbook, and men's magazines such as Gent, Nugget, Cavalier, and Fling.
She also began appearing in movies, earning a role in the Frank Sinatra flick Lady in Cement and bit parts in The Dogs of War, The Mean Season, and Absence of Malice.
By now a celebrity, she also began publishing more than two dozen books, most of them about her craft and the pin-up genre. One tome, How I Photograph Myself, earned her a spot on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in 1966. Its cover depicts Yeager posing in front of a boxy, old-fangled camera while snapping its shutter with a tug of a cord tied to her toe.
"The idea was like those old rubber balls one had to squeeze to take a self-portrait before cameras had automatic features built in," Yeager says.
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Yeager never stopped taking self-portraits during that era. "I always took pictures of myself when I looked my best. I wanted to have these pictures as a pictorial diary and to remind me that I was also a great model," she says.
Many of those photos are now seeing the light of day for the first time and earning her rave critical reviews.
"I always looked at my work as an art form and not a job," Yeager says. "I knew starting out I had as good a chance as anybody to succeed and become famous. I knew my work was excellent and as good, if not better, than the other photographers working at the time.
"I think it's nice to be appreciated at last," she says. "Now people think they know me as a photographer, but they forget I was once a model myself."