Bunny Yeager, 85

Iconic pinup photographer and model Bunny Yeager dies at 85

 

hcohen@MiamiHerald.com

Photographer Bunny Yeager epitomized the era of the pinup beauty.

She did so not only in front of the camera where, as a statuesque 5-foot, 10-inch vision she became one of the most sought-after models in Miami. But, more significantly, behind the lens where she persuaded more women to drop their tops for a photo than almost anyone not named Hugh Hefner.

As a result, Yeager became one of the country’s most famous and influential photographers. Celebrated photographers like the late Diane Arbus, who called her “the world’s greatest pinup photographer,” and Berenice Abbott championed Yeager’s work.

“She was a pioneer in terms of being an artist,” said Dennis Scholl, a Miami-based documentary filmmaker and vice president for the arts for The Knight Foundation. “Photography was not … deemed high art until the 1950s when Bunny started shooting. She paved the way for Laurie Simmons and the great contemporary artists of our time like Cindy Sherman — the most important female photographer alive. Today, women contemporary photographers are not unusual. Photography is gender irrelevant, but Bunny really was the first.”

Yeager died at 85 on Sunday afternoon at Pinecrest Rehabilitation Center in North Miami of congestive heart failure, her manager Ed Christin said. Yeager referred to him as her agent. “She said not anyone can ‘manage’ her.”

Yeager’s photographs of Bettie Page, an actress-model who lived in an old house by the Miami River, turned both women into household names when Yeager was 25. Yeager’s iconic shot of Page kneeling next to a Christmas tree in a Santa hat and nothing else wound up as the centerfold in Hefner’s January 1955 issue of Playboy and cemented the pop culture status of the Playmate of the Month.

When Playboy championed the curvaceous yet approachable “girl next door” image in the 1950s and ’60s, Yeager was one of Hef’s go-to photographers. Yeager’s pinups were so ubiquitous in that era that she wound up shooting eight Playboy centerfolds, along with covers and pictorial spreads. She found one of her models, Carol Jean Lauritzen, in downtown Miami at a Flagler Street bus stop.

Entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. caught the photo bug after taking tips from Yeager and assisting her on some shoots in the ’50s. Yeager designed the bikinis her models wore and is credited with popularizing the two-piece swimsuit in America after its creation in France in 1946. Perhaps her most famous bikini image is the still of actress Ursula Andress coming out of the waters of Jamaica in the first James Bond film, 1962’s Dr. No.

She seldom lacked for willing models, hundreds of them and more, who would doff their duds for immortality in print.

“Most girls were afraid if a man approached them. They had no fears with me,” Yeager said in a 2011 Miami Herald profile.

Yeager enjoyed a smashing revival after turning 80. She published the coffee table book Bunny Yeager’s Darkroom ($60, Rizzoli) in 2012. Her latest, of more than 30 books, Bettie Page: Queen of Curves ($38, Rizzoli), is due in September.

In 2010, the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh presented a show of her self-portraits. In 2013, the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale hosted a retrospective show and she opened a combination studio and gallery in Wynwood with Miami’s Center for Visual Communication. The Gavlak Gallery on Worth Avenue in Palm Beach currently has an exhibit of her 1950s and ’60s photos and will devote a wall to Yeager’s work at Art Basel-Miami Beach 2014 in December.

The Yeager revival of tame nudes is remarkable given the widespread availability of hardcore nudity online and in print — something Yeager eschewed. She wouldn’t shoot in the ’70s and ’80s when Playboy and, especially, its raunchier competitors like Penthouse and Hustler favored gynecological closeups. “Kind of smutty,” she said.

Instead, Yeager sang in Miami nightclubs and had bit parts in made-in-Miami films: Midnight Cowboy, Porky’s and Lady in Cement with Frank Sinatra.

“She keeps having comeback after comeback,” said friend and collector Tara Solomon, principal co-founder of Tara, Ink., a Miami Beach-based public relations firm. “This definitely has been Bunny’s moment — her modern moment — and the moment is going to be extended for a long time. She is truly a trans-generational icon.”

In March, Solomon celebrated Yeager’s 85th birthday at the El Portal home of artist Carlos Betancourt and his partner Alberto Latorre. She snapped Yeager on her cellphone before a large pink cake, her arms raised in victory pose. “That was so touching and beautiful to see Bunny on her 85th in good spirits,” she said.

Betancourt befriended Yeager in the 1980s, drawn by her ties to Miami, a city he adopted after leaving Puerto Rico in 1981 at 14.

“For me, and for many other artists, when you see someone with that unique a voice and that unique a personality — this vision — it becomes so relevant and attractive to a group of people. She had that. She’s a great artist,” Betancourt said. “My work deals with issues of memory and she’s so representative of a Florida that is so long ago and she is my connection to a Florida I love — so mysterious, even in the way she carries herself and the way she talks, that is all long gone.”

Yeager was born in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, as Eleanor Linnea Yeager. She took Bunny from the Lana Turner character in the 1945 comedy Week-End at the Waldorf. She moved to Miami at 17 in 1946 and has lived in the same Miami Shores home for more than 50 years. As a model in Miami, Yeager won more than 30 beauty titles, including one in which a smitten judge named Joe DiMaggio asked her out on a date.

He’d have to settle for Marilyn Monroe, whom he’d later marry and divorce.

“She has accomplished more to sell the attractions of Miami and its environs than almost anything you can think of, including cheesecake,” gushed The Miami News in a Feb. 4, 1951, article. She even inspired the term “cheesecake” that has commonly come to refer to pictures of hardly dressed women, Solomon said.

Seems a Spanish-language magazine in the 1960s featured a shot of Yeager on its cover clutching a slice of cheesecake under Spanish text for the dessert, tarta de queso. “The term just stuck. We use it so effortlessly but it was Bunny who inspired it,” Solomon said.

In 1953, Yeager took night classes in photography at the former Lindsey Hopkins Vocational School in downtown Miami. Her first class assignment turned into a real ooh-la-la moment. She used an old Speed Graphic press camera with exploding hand-held flash and shot at the now-defunct Boca Raton zoo, Africa USA. But the animals played second fiddle to her model friends who wore strategically cut leopard-skin bathing suits amid the cheetahs and chimps. A shot of Maria Stinger with two cheetahs wound up on the cover of the cheesecake mag, Eye. Yeager found her career.

In 1954 she made the cover of US Camera in a splashy feature titled, “The World’s Prettiest Photographer.” The designation meant little to her.

“That’s not what she cared about. She laughed, ‘Of course, they are a bunch of old guys.’ She worked hard for it to be an art form and to be thought of as a world-class artist,” Scholl said.

“She made it OK for women to celebrate their own sensuality at a time when this was very taboo,” Solomon said.

Yeager is survived by daughters Lisa Irwin Packard of Miami and Cherilu Irwin Duvall of Hamilton, Ohio.

Instead of flowers, the family requests donations to the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind in St. Augustine, or Gospel for Asia, where Bunny's granddaughter is a missionary ( GFA.org).

Services will be at 4 p.m. Sunday at Faith Lutheran Church and School, 293 Hialeah Dr. in Hialeah.

Follow @HowardCohen on Twitter.

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