On view at Nova Southeastern University’s Museum of Art, Fort Lauderdale, are two exhibitions that focus on the emergence of professional female photographers since the 1950s. While Bunny Yeager: Both Sides of the Camera looks at the brief yet important career of the 1940s and 50s famed pin-up model-turned-photographer; Woman’s World: Contemporary Views of Women by Women considers the changing image of femininity in the last decades. Both shows are wonderfully executed and represent a shift in conventional female roles and also the exploration of photographic methods.
Peter Boswell, the museum’s curator at large, describes both exhibitions as complementary shows, both exploring images of women in photography, but during different timeframes. For Boswell, the theme serves two mistresses, providing both a lens for the changes in the medium of photography and the shifts in women’s roles in society.
The Yeager exhibition explores both shifts as it unveils self-portraits chronologically. While many of the photos are nostalgic and embody the period of “pin-up photography,” Yeager’s photos capture a sense of timeless quality, vitality, and freshness.
First are images dating from the 1950s and 60s, Sportraying the model/photographer in Miami Beach or Key Biscayne, usually sporting her Rolleiflex camera. At the time, photography was dominated by men working in the strict, artificial confines of New York studios, often shooting for fashion houses and magazines to produce images of “ideal’’ women. Yeager’s images in the tropical outdoors -- many from her 1964 book How I Photograph Myself -- were designed to convey a more open, expressive relationship of a woman with herself.
In another set of photos, Yeager evokes popular Hollywood icons including Marilyn Monroe, Joan Crawford, and Audrey Hepburn. Limited in her resources Yeager used wigs, jewelry, handmade costumes and plain backgrounds. The simplicity and elegance of these photos demonstrate her ability to transform into various personas and personify their eternal characters, and viewers familiar with the work of Cindy Sherman can’t help but think of Sherman’s conceptual self-portraits.
A large selection of the Yeager exhibition is focused on the extensive photos of Bettie Page, a 1955 Playboy playmate of the month who became known as the “Queen of Pin-Ups.” Early in their careers, Yeager met the then-unknown Page in Miami in 1954. The Africa USA portfolio shot in the former Boca Raton safari theme park jump-started both women’s careers. Yeager’s fascination with natural beauty and exotic locations led her to photograph models in Jamaica and the Yucatán.
Yeager still works and lives in South Florida. The show reaches into the current year with a selection of stylized photos shot with a digital camera. In one particularly striking image, Paz de la Huerta, from HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, reclines in a dugout canoe floating on a glistening poolside. The scene projects film noir mood electrically charged by de la Huerta’s uncanny gaze, sultry red lips, a lit cigarette in her hand.
Yeager’s independent approach to female photography is paired with new visions of the modern woman in Woman’s World. The 25 photographers featured call attention to universal issues that affect other women worldwide. The images show an intimate and identifiable relationship between contemporary female photographers and their sitters .