Named “The World’s Prettiest Photographer” by US Camera magazine in 1953, Bunny Yeager is one of the few famous shutterbugs who could work both sides of the camera with equal ease. Some of her most iconic images — including vintage contact sheets — are showcased in a one-woman exhibition opening February 23 at Photographs Do Not Bend Gallery (PDNB).
Born in 1929, the Miami-based Yeager was a pin-up model in the ’40s before stepping behind the lens. Her first attempts at photography were less about refining her craft as cutting down on an up-and-coming model’s work expenses.
“Being a model, I needed a lot of photographs, and I thought it might be less expensive if I went to photo school and just learned how to print my own,” Yeager says. “I didn’t really care if I learned [the craft] or not; I just wanted to make a lot of photographs I could use in my career. I wasn’t very interested in shooting other models, to tell you the truth.”
“Bettie Page didn’t care that much about modeling,” Yeager says. “Bettie’s delight was to work on her suntan.”
Yet Yeager soon found herself taking pictures of model friends and selling her work to men’s magazines. Instead of using local studios as a location, she put her subjects (and herself) in the great outdoors, giving her images an energy and liveliness lacking in other cheesecake shots of the period. She also designed bathing suits and lingerie for her models to wear, giving her pictures a unique style other photographers couldn’t replicate.
In 1954, Yeager met the notorious Bettie Page, and the duo’s collaborations made pin-up history. When Playboy bought a shot of a topless, winking Page in a Santa hat for its 1955 holiday issue, two legends were born.
Despite their magical work together, Yeager says she considered Page just another model. “She was just somebody who came along who happened to follow my directions very well. She didn’t care that much about modeling. Bettie’s delight was to work on her suntan. She had flawless skin to begin with, and she would lay in the beautiful Miami sun every morning and knew just how long to cook it to get her skin that beautiful shade.”
As the anything-goes ’60s dawned, Yeager’s photography fell out of favor. “After the 1960s, most men’s magazines went out of business except Penthouse and Playboy,” Yeager says. “Things got so very revealing, and I didn’t want to shoot that kind of work. I just stopped accumulating new photos and put the others aside.”
The photographer kept busy publishing a series of how-to books, such as How I Photograph Nudes (1963) and How I Photograph Myself (1964), and even took on a small role as a Swedish masseuse opposite Frank Sinatra in the 1968 film Lady in Cement.
The resurgence in interest in Page and pin-ups helped put Yeager back in the spotlight, and she was honored with her first museum survey at Pittsburgh’s Andy Warhol Museum in 2010. The publication of Bunny Yeager’s Darkroom: Pin-up Photography’s Golden Era in 2012 solidified her influential body of work, and she continues to stay busy with new books and projects, including a swimwear collection for the European line Bruno Banani.
Throughout all her endeavors, Yeager continues to work the way she always has: in her own, indomitable way. “Whether it was shooting pictures of myself or any other girl, I wasn’t boxed into a corner. I did what I wanted to do,” she says. “If I get too old to pick up the camera or whatever it takes, I can always just direct. I’m an expert lighting master, and, for me, the whole excitement is painting with light.”
The Bunny Yeager exhibit runs through May 11 at PDNB. The opening reception is Saturday, February 23, 5-8 pm.