Gavlak Los Angeles proudly presents a solo show of photographs by artist-model Bunny Yeager (1929-2014), including hand-painted photographs of Bunny, Bettie Page, numerous self-portraits, and images that reveal behind the scene secrets to how she created her work. Born Eleanor Linnea Yeager in Pittsburgh, PA in 1929, Bunny passed away in 2014 in Miami, Florida. The ironic innocence of Bunny Yeager’s pin-up format compositions is palpable in the current pop-historical climate in which pornography is an explosive international industry, with a panoramic range between entertaining and damaging. In such a climate today, Yeager’s work, and even her pseudonym “Bunny,” operate like time capsules from a softer, less harsh, more voluptuous day. Both she and her subjects embrace the performance of a sticky-sweet, hyper-gendered sexuality along with a highly studied, poolside elegance where everyone plays along with full disclosure. What sets Yeager apart is her intentional authorship as a woman photographer in a man’s world of looking at women. The multiplicity of identities she assumed for her herself and her “girls” is itself a lifelong conceptual act, as is the conscious presence of the camera as a second subject or muse. The apparatus is often revealed in her glamour shots, as if to reinforce her authorship as photographer.
Yeager was a model, beauty pageant queen, promoter, author, designer, scriptwriter, wife, mother of two, and a sought-after photographer and artist. Even though socially it was unheard of for a woman of her background to be an artist, she was on the cover of U.S. Camera in 1954, but the headline: “The World’s Prettiest Photographer” points to the contradictory nature of what it meant then to be both model and photographer.
Yeager moved to Miami at 17 where she completed high school and studied photography at The Lindsay-Hopkins Technical College. It was then, in 1954, that she was asked by actress Bettie Page to photograph her. This lead to the famous January 1955 Playboy Magazine centerfold of Page wearing nothing but a Santa hat, launching Yeager’s career as a nationally recognized photographer. Soon after, Yeager began to write “How To Photograph” books, such as her 1957 How to Photograph the Female Figure, publishing thirty books in total.
One piece, which perfectly captures the artist in her practice, is the photograph of blonde bombshell Bunny with a lipstick red tripod, red shoes, and red sweater. Her exquisite left leg points in a pose that is so intentional it is practically contortionist. Her toes pull the camera’s matching cherry red selfie-cord, revealing the subversive nature of the model and artist all at once. Given that fashion photographers were men and models were women only adds to the transgressive tone of this image and of Bunny’s extensive oeuvre of photographs.
Yeager’s books in the 1960s such as How to Photograph Nudes and How I Photograph Myself influenced such artist-photographers as Diane Arbus and Cindy Sherman. Her work may be viewed within a longer history of subversive self-photographers, from the infamous Countess di Castiglione, known as “la divina contessa,” who authored countless portraits of her face, body, costumes, and legs, over her entire lifetime and career as Italian consort to Emperor Napoleon. Also Vogue model-photographer Lee Miller comes to mind, photographing herself at times through the 1930s, with Man Ray as her muse and vice versa. We may even consider Bunny’s work within the history of women and self-portraiture: Anguissola, Gentilleschi, Leyster, Cameron, and Kahlo. But the glamorous side of Bunny’s projected self and others has masked these important associations. It is as if seduced for decades, we are unable to see past the beauty. We stop in our tracks at bombshell, bunny, and blonde. The discourse ends with pin-up girl. But this is perhaps just the blinding starting point for a conversation about how the human form can be both: mother and model, beautiful and meaningful, innocent and intelligent, experienced and engaging. The many faces and figurative hats (hairdos) of Bunny Yeager are revealed for the first time in Los Angeles.
Bunny Yeager’s work was featured in 2010 at The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh in the exhibition Bunny Yeager: The Legendary Queen of the Pin-Up, curated by Emily Hetzel and Eric Shiner. In 2012 she exhibited in Miami, Dallas, Berlin, and Bulgaria and published her retrospective book Bunny Yeager’s Darkroom: The Golden Age of Pin-up with Rizzoli New York. In 2013 she had her first retrospective at the Museum of Art Ft. Lauderdale, curated by Peter Boswell. Her work was featured at Gavlak in Palm Beach in 2014 and her work is represented in Europe by Galerie Schuster Berlin, in Miami by The Center for Visual Communication and Harold Golen Gallery, in Dallas by PDNB Gallery, and in Los Angeles and Palm Beach by Gavlak.
-Lisa Jaye Young, Ph.D.
Bunny Yeager Interview with Tara Solomon of the Huffington Post, October 2012:
Tara Solomon: Your family moved to Florida when you were 17. What are your fondest memories of late-40s and early-50s Miami?
Bunny Yeager: It was like I was in a movie. I’d been a fan of movies all my life growing up in Pennsylvania. I loved glamorous actresses like Dorothy Lamour, or anyone in a sarong or hula skirt. I was in love with the tropics, and found it here in Miami.
TS: You’re credited for discovering Bettie Page, “The temptress of Tennessee” and one of the most famous pinups of her era. What characteristics, physical and otherwise, made you realize she was a star in the making? How would you describe your working relationship?
BY: Our relationship was excellent — I was a director and she was a performer. She did everything I asked her to do. I liked that. I didn’t like models who pushed their poses on me, because they thought they were doing something fantastic, and waited for me to snap the shutter. I like to pose my models, and she let me pose her the way I wanted to pose her. We had a good time. It was a like a workout on the beach for two pretty girls.
TS: One of your most well-known photo shoots – featuring Bettie Page in a cheetah-print bathing suit that you made yourself by hand, surrounded by live cheetahs — was staged at the old Africa U.S.A. theme park in Boca Raton. This series of shots included a topless Bettie frolicking with the cheetahs. Were the two of you ever worried about working with live animals?
BY: Not at all. I checked with Bettie when we were going to shoot — I asked if she liked animals, and said, ‘I’m going to take you to a wild animal tourist attraction, and they have live cheetahs, zebras, giraffes and all sorts of things running around free, without cages. We have to get with the animals to photograph them with you.’ She was very excited that we were going there. I have always liked animals, especially wild animals. They have a mind of their own, and you have to be very clever to catch them for the shot. I was very lucky with the cheetahs. The trainer said, `If they don’t like the way you are — the way you smell or act — they’ll walk away and have nothing to do with you. They have to like you.’ We didn’t have a bit of trouble with the cheetahs.
TS: Do you have a favorite Bettie Page photograph that you’ve taken?
BY: Oh, my. I have things I’ve shot of Bettie Page that are funny. She’s so beautiful, and I made her into different characters because I wanted to show how women are viewed by men, who of course have different ideas of women. They don’t see the real girl — they see her as something else. I had Bettie as a housewife where her hair’s not combed or anything because she’s so careless — things a glamour girl doesn’t normally do. It was one of my favorites, because she had fun putting outfits an ordinary housewife might wear, and would let her hair be messy. She did everything I wanted to do – without changing my thoughts or ideas — and I liked that. I had the feeling Bettie really enjoyed working with me more than other photographers, because I was always coming up with strange new ideas. For me to make a living, I had to sell to men’s magazines. At the time, there were many men’s magazines — 75 or 100 nice men’s magazines — that I could offer my pictures to. For me to get my pictures in, and not some other photographers’, I’d have to do something outstanding and very different. I couldn’t submit pinup girls in studios. The magazines weren’t used to receiving pictures of girls on location — on Miami Beach, and the tropics, and the jungle things I shot at Africa USA. They snapped up those pictures like they couldn’t get enough of them.
TS: Although Bettie Page was your most famous subject, you had a stable of beauties that you photographed over the years. How did you cast them? Are you in touch with any of them today?
BY: Well, I’d really love to be in touch with them, but I don’t know how to reach them. Every now and then, a girl will call me on the phone and say, `I bet you don’t remember me.’ I always remember them. I never forget my models. I’m so happy to speak to them, and see them when they come and visit me. They show their figures off even though they’ve gotten older, and they like to be photographed. I get the feeling they’d like me to take their picture. I don’t have time, I’m pretty busy with all the new things I’m doing, but I do plan to shoot some of these older women. And it’s funny, because they’ve tried so hard to keep themselves looking like they did when they were teenagers. I’m not sure if I’d have enough for a whole spread of old ladies, but it’s kind of interesting. They remember the excitement of posing and want to relive it.
TS: Your diverse locations ranged from exotic ruins in Mexico to a humble bathtub to a fire station. You also shot at landmarks of the day such as Funland amusement park. How important was the location in creating your visual story?
BY: The location was secondary — the model came first. It had to be a background where I could show the model off to her advantage. My competition was men shooting in photo studios in New York City, and that’s where other photographers were competing with me for space in men’s magazines. At that time, I was in every men’s magazine, and they looked forward to me discovering a fresh, new face and body.
My typical girl next door was Carol Jean Lauritzen. I happened to be downtown in Miami and was looking through a shoe store [window], and I came across this beautiful girl. She was very young and I could see she’d been shopping there with her mother. I asked her mother if Carol Jean was a model, and if she’d maybe do some modeling for me in a bathing suit at the beach one day. I told her, `You have to sign a model release form. I’m not interested in taking pictures for personal reasons, I sell them to magazines and I will pay her a fee for posing.’
Carol Jean was only 16 when I got her. But I got her in a magazine, and Howard Hughes at that time contacted me, and wanted to know if I could find out if she could come to California and be interviewed. He was going to send a member of his staff to Miami to take some other shots of her and interview her. He was trying to discover a new movie star he would make famous — I don’t know whether he was sending them to school out there or what, but that’s what happened to Carol Jean. He put her through dancing school and singing school and dramatics — everything she’d need to know to be groomed to be a star. They stayed several months, but Carol Jean’s mom couldn’t stay because she had a little boy, and her husband was getting upset she was gone so long. Carol Jean had to give up her career and come to Miami, but all opportunities were given to her. If someone had been hired to stay with Carol Jean who she trusted, it might have turned out differently. But I was so proud I’d caught the eye of Howard Hughes — practically a recluse at that time — and that he wanted to meet her.
TS: How would you describe the transformation of the pinup, from the more innocent days of the 30s and 40s to the centerfold of today?
BY: There’s quite a difference from the really old ones, to the 50s when I was shooting, to today. They’ve really gone overboard. I don’t like some of the pictures I see in the men’s magazines. All of my photos are what you call “clean, wholesome cheesecake,” and could be shown to anyone. That’s how I tried to shoot.
I was going to photography school at the time and was learning how to use transparency film using a large format camera to shoot it with. The instructor was so thrilled with what I’d brought in, he said, `You know, this is good. I think you should send this in to a magazine and try to get it published.’ I did and sold it right away. That’s how it all began.
I decided I didn’t know where to send the pictures I was shooting. I was walking by the magazine stand and saw a new men’s magazine [Playboy]. I called them on the phone and asked if I could submit my photographs. As soon as they got them, Hugh called me up and was all excited, and wanted to buy one of the photos for Playboy. The picture was of Bettie decorating a Christmas tree, in just a Santa hat I had made for her. Hugh and I have remained close friends. We stay in touch, he sends me his Christmas cards with his various girlfriends or wives or whatever. I follow his whole career, and he never forgets me.
TS: Whom do you consider the quintessential pinup, and why?
BY: I’m sorry, but it’s Marilyn Monroe. I always admired Marilyn Monroe. I identified with her a little bit, though I was never as big as she was.
TS: How did starting out in front of the lens impact your experience as a photographer?
BY: I always liked to pose for pictures, and I became a professional model, so I knew pretty much what a model should be able to do when I was getting to be a photographer. It was a natural thing to photograph model friends I had, rather than a man, or a family, or people. I didn’t’ take any serious pictures. I liked glamorous things. Even though I went to photography school [The Lindsey Hopkins Vocational Education School, in Miami], everyone was shooting dogs and cats and family. I started bringing my models into class to be guided by the instructor. I learned all I could there. Color was very new then, so I did that one time. I did a lot of shooting, developing in black and white, then blowing my photos up and showing them off to the other members of the class. We’d critique each other’s work, and the teacher would then critique. I was getting some good grades and advice from the instructor, and the instructions were: ‘You need to sell your work, it’s good.’
TS: What attributes or life lessons helped you succeed as a photographer in a field that was dominated by men?
BY: I always hated it when people said, “You can do this as good as a man,” or “Why don’t you do it like the men do it.” They kept bothering me. I wasn’t interested in competing with male photographers, or doing anything that had to do with them, because I wanted to be original and have my own feelings and abilities to put forth my ideas and execute them into photo stories. I wanted to do what I wanted to do, not what men had done. That’s when I really went on a straight road of following my ideas and what I wanted to shoot.
TS: Did you ever feel that you had any competition as a female photographer?
BY: No. I was the lone trailblazer.
TS: What advice would you give to current or aspiring photographers?
BY: You have to learn how to be a photographer. Look for a photography school; it doesn’t have to be expensive. The [vocational] school I went to was one that taught people how to work in restaurants and other things. That school was very inexpensive, and could be in business now for all I know. Find a photography school where you can learn without paying high fees — there are too many fraud-type schools that want thousands of dollars. At my school, you didn’t have to graduate, you could keep learning new things about photography. That’s how I learned to shoot pictures, and how to develop them, print them. The class I was in had two other women aside from me, and the rest were men. I liked that, because I just felt comfortable. But the one girl was just taking it as a hobby, and the other was the wife of the instructor, trying to learn what her husband was teaching.
TS: Do you think the art of the pin-up is a dying art?
BY: Yes, yes, yes — it’s dying. It’ll come back. I’ll bring it back. I’ll bring it back with my book.
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