photography

Photographer Bunny Yeager takes another shot with new Wynwood pinup gallery

 

If you go

What: Bunny Yeager ’s New Studio Opening and Swimsuit Fashion Presentation

When: 7 to 8 p.m. Thursday

Where: 557 NW 27th St., Wynwood Art District of Miami (part of Center for Visual Comunication (CVC) at 541 NW 27th St.

Contact: RSVP required to 305-571-1415 or studiolaunch@visual.org

THow much: Free.

FYI: Studio hours by appointment to 305-571-1415 or studiomanager@visual.org.


ggarvin@MiamiHerald.com

It bugs Bunny Yeager just a little bit when people say she shot pinup girls in the 1950s and 1960s just as well as any man did. She shot them better than any man did, or any other woman, as far as she’s concerned. But she does admit that she got the idea from guys, who when Bunny herself did modeling were always more interested in what was beneath the high-fashion clothes they were supposed to be taking pictures of.

“When I was a model, most of the photographers I met — and they were all males — seemed to want to shoot nude girls,” she recalls. “When I was posing, they all tried to get my clothes off. ‘Hey, can’t you pull down your blouse a little more? Hey, let’s do one without your top.’

“I’d always say, oh, I’m a professional model, I’m not allowed to do that. And they’d accept that. Actually, nobody had ever said anything to me one way or the other. But I had no interest in doing it. I was very shy, and I didn’t want to be known as a nude model.”

But when she moved to the other side of the camera, everything changed. Bunny Yeager won fame and fortune persuading hundreds, possibly thousands, of other models to take their tops off. Bottoms, too. She turned pinup photos into an art form and made bare skin the official uniform of Miami Beach.

And now, at a time when a few clicks of the mouse can bring a cascade of artless pornography into any computer in America, she’s staging an unlikely comeback. In cooperation with Miami’s Center for Visual Communication, Yeager is opening a combination studio and gallery in Wynwood this week.

The working studio will be Yeager’s headquarters for a new series of projects triggered by the long line of models who approach her every week, hoping for a chance to work with a photographer who was already famous four decades before they were born. And the gallery, with rotating exhibits of Yeager’s pinup shots, will for the first time give her a permanent location to display her work to the public.

The studio and gallery are just part of a flurry of new activity celebrating Yeager’s photography. She published one coffee table book of her photos last year ( Bunny Yeager’s Darkroom, $60, Rizzoli) and has another of her work with pinup icon Bettie Page due next year. German fashion house Bruno Banani has launched a line of swimsuits based on the bikinis Yeager designed for her models. And Miami’s Harold Golen Galley is doing a show next month of paintings inspired by her photos.

It’s a startling turnaround for a photographer who, at age 83, believed her entire genre had long ago been obliterated by the new breed of men magazines that favored gynecology over allure, pushing aside pinups for porn.

“I did no shooting at all in the 1970s and 1980s,” recalls Yeager. “In the 1960s, I shot more pictures than I was able to sell. But then men’s magazines starting going out of business. You had magazines like Penthouse … kind of smutty. They had girls showing more than they should. I wasn’t going to try to show more than they did, because they showed everything.”

It was an ironic turn for the woman who — along with her sometimes-employer Hugh Hefner — did as much as anyone, ever, to make photography of the unclad female form popular and respectable. Yeager’s pinups were ubiquitous in the 1950s, not only in men’s magazines (she shot eight Playboy centerfolds and, in one 1959 issue, added the cover and a 12-page pictorial story as well) but — in slightly more clothed versions — general-circulation publications like Pageant. She published more than a dozen books on photography and even appeared on the quiz show To Tell The Truth.

Her fascination with pinup-style photography started when she was just a young teenager and she spotted a movie-magazine layout on Rita Hayworth.

“She was posing on a bed in what looked like a slip — it was probably a nightgown, I know that now, but it wasn’t like any nightgown I’d ever worn,” says Yeager. “I got out one of my mother’s slips, one with lace at the top, which looked a little bit like what Rita had worn. And my mother took my picture in it. I don’t know whatever happened to that. I was always afraid it would fall into the wrong hands, like it was something bad.”

Yeager was, soon enough, taking the pictures rather than posing for them, though just for fun. There wasn’t much for kids to do in the rural area where she lived outside Pittsburgh — even getting to the stop for the school bus was a three-mile hike — and she started staging impromptu shoots with her girlfriends, posing them in funky outfits pulled together from the contents of old trunks in the family attic, taking the pictures with her mom’s Brownie box camera.

“I remember one girl who used to hang around with me who was a little bit overweight,” Yeager says. “She was always there, hoping my popularity would rub off on her or something like that. And one time I asked her if she wanted to come over and pose for some pictures. She was so excited! I remember we made a bra for her out of a scarf, laying it across her chest, and I shot her like that out on the front porch. Pretty daring — I can’t believe we really did it. But we did.”

Other sessions followed, with no shortage of girls willing to strike a risqué pose. “They wanted to pose,” Yeager laughs. “They were dying to pose.” Actual nudity, however, was out of the question. “I wouldn’t have known what to do with them,” she says. “Where would you even get something like that developed? We certainly didn’t know how to develop anything.”

A few years later, Yeager’s family moved to Miami, where her buxom blond good lucks soon made her a top fashion model, working both runways and photo shoots. But the idea of taking the pictures rather than posing for them remained stuck in her head. And in 1953, Yeager began taking night classes at what was then called the Lindsey Hopkins Vocational School. And her very first class assignment caused a sensation.

“The instructor told all of us to just go out and shoot anything we wanted, and the class would critique it together,” she recalls. Yeager came back with film shot on a four-inch-by-five Speed Graphic press camera — the kind you see pushy newspaper photographers wielding in old movies, with an exploding hand-held flash — shot at Africa USA, a (mostly) cageless zoo in Boca Raton. But these weren’t your ordinary send-‘em-to-Grandpa pictures of zebras and chimps. They showed Yeager’s model pals, wearing strategically cut leopard-skin bathing suits, cavorting with cheetahs in shots ranging from adventurous to pure Freudian meltdown.

Yeager’s classmates were speechless. Her teacher ordered her to send them off to magazines immediately. Sure enough, a publication called Eye with a healthy appetite for cheesecake put one of them on its cover, and Yeager’s new career was born.

Curiously, that photo wasn’t one of those Yeager shot with her friend Bettie Page, a new Miami arrival who had already become a cult heroine back home in New York with the negligee-and-high-heels sessions she did with amateur camera clubs. Page would go on to become one of the most famous pinup models of the 1950s (thanks in no small part to a shot of her next to a Christmas tree, wearing nothing but a Santa hat, that Yeager sold to Playboy). But back then she was just mostly another one of Page’s buddies, donating her time in return for free pictures for her modeling portfolio.

Yeager, however, already knew better.

“Oh, she was beautiful!” says Yeager, still shaking her head at the memory of her favorite model. “She had beautiful hair, with a natural sheen, and never a hair out of place. A great figure, so tan. And when I told her I thought I might want to photograph her nude, she said, ‘Funny, I sunbathe nude and I have a tan like this all over.’ And she did, everywhere, even behind her knees and all the places you wouldn’t think. It was like somebody had airbrushed her …

“She lived by the Miami River in an old house she rented, and she would sunbathe in the back yard every day. It was sheltered in a way that, unless you were on a boat, you wouldn’t know she was there, even though it was right there in downtown Miami.”

Even in her shots from that first classroom assignment, you can see all the elements that would make Yeager’s work so popular: The incandescent glow of her models’ skin (produced by Yeager’s use of a flash even in bright daylight). The exotic costuming (Yeager, at first from penury and later by design, made all her models’ swimwear — “I was doing my own bikinis at the same time as that Frenchman, even though I didn’t call them that”). And, most strikingly, her preference for natural settings over studios.

“She was one of the first photographers to marry nature with women,” says Barry Fellman, who has been showing her pictures in galleries for years and manages the new Bunny Yeager Studio. “Well, naked women.”

Even so, what strikes Yeager about the photos that birthed her career is not the outdoor setting but those big, wild cats. “Look how close my leg is to that cheetah,” she murmurs, examining a photo with a concealed remote-control device, showing her posing Page next to the impassive jungle creatures. “I must have been crazy. I certainly wouldn’t do that now. But I don’t remember being scared at all. I was just concentrating on getting the shot.”

And she did, as she mostly would for the next couple of decades. The only shot to elude Yeager was one with Marilyn Monroe, the model she most would have liked to work with but never did. “I had no idea how to find her and push all the way through those press people,” she says sadly. “I didn’t have the guts to do it.”

Maybe, now that Yeager is shooting again, things will work out better with the woman she thinks is today’s most camera-friendly. “I’d love to work with that girl who gets in all the trouble,” she muses. “What’s her name? Lindsey Lohan, that’s it. She’s just like the girls from the past, the way she moves, the way she poses. Classic. I don’t know why she gets in all that trouble.”

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