Self-reflection

Portraits that pioneering Miami photographer Bunny Yeager made of herself go on view for the first time

05/13/2011 5:00 AM

10/07/2012 12:25 PM

Photographer Bunny Yeager defined an era of pin-up glamour, feeding the fantasies of generations of men with her famous photos of Bettie Page and countless other coy seductresses in the 1950s and ’60s.

But few people recall that before she was a photographer, Yeager was a top model, posing for Playboy and high-end store ads.

Her talent for creating iconic images in front of as well as behind the camera are revealed in a series of never-shown, vintage self-portraits that will be on display beginning Saturday at the tiny Harold Golen Gallery in Wynwood.

“These pictures have not seen the light of day,” Yeager, 81, says from her Miami Shores home. “I shot them mostly for my own purposes — to remember in later days, like now, what I used to be.”

Since word of the show got out, Yeager and Golen have been inundated with calls; even The New York Times wants to do a story. The response has both surprised and gratified the pioneering glamour girl.

“It’s exciting to find out that I’m appreciated by so many people,” she says. “The phone hasn’t stopped ringing. People want to see me. It’s like my life is starting all over again.”

Gallery owner Golen is thrilled to be showing Yeager’s self-portraits. A Miami native, Golen, 47, had been a fan of her Page photos since he was a teen. As the owner of the Pop Shop on South Beach, an outlet for pop culture memorabilia and collectibles, he collected Page photos and magazines long before Yeager’s most famous model was rediscovered as a cultural icon.

“It’s so cool,” says Golen, sitting in the office of his bright orange Wynwood gallery, where books on Page and Yeager sit next to works by well-known pop artists such as Ron English.

For him, Yeager’s photos embody the odd, innocent sensuality of the Miami where he grew up.

“They always fascinated me,” he says. “There’s this whimsical quality about them — they’re trying to be stylish and smart, but there’s a little joke at the same time, and they’re a little twisted, too.”

Golen feels his exhibit will add to that pop iconography.

“Now there’s a whole other aspect to this. There’s this other goddess to worship. We’ve done Bettie Page. Now we have Bunny Yeager.”

Born in a small town outside Pittsburgh, Linnea Eleanor Yeager (she took the name Bunny from a Lana Turner film) moved to Miami with her family at 17, and quickly found success as a model, posing for high-end fashion shoots and pin-up postcards.

In the early 1950s she took a photography class to learn to produce the promotional pictures she needed for her modeling career, but soon found she had a talent for original images that combined sexiness with a captivating sense of personality and place.

The forthright Yeager would ask girls on the street and in stores to pose. (She found one future Playboy model at a Flagler Street bus stop.)

“I wasn’t afraid to talk to them —if they were with their mother that was even better, ‘cause I’d get an instant yes or no. Most girls were afraid if a man approached them. … They had no fears with me.”

Besides capturing her long-legged good looks at their peak, Yeager used her self-portraits to try out ideas she could use in shooting other models — and to stretch a restless creative imagination.

“There was just something inside me that made me want to show how I looked in those days,” she says. “I grew up in the country with no one to play with, and I played a lot of imaginary games — my mind was very active.”

That imagination inspired the legendary shoot with Page on Key Biscayne, where Yeager captured the voluptuous, dark-haired beauty with the trademark bangs as a naughty naif, romping in the water in bikinis that Yeager designed and made herself.

Their most famous shoot was likely one at a Boca Raton wildlife park, where an innocently sensual Page, clad in a homemade leopard-skin bathing suit, lounged with cheetahs.

“I said, “Are you afraid of animals?” and [Page] said “I like dogs and cats – I think I’ll be fine,’ ” Yeager recalls. “And she was. You’d think she lived with them.”

Yeager chose domestic settings for her self-portraits, and pictured herself as a more knowing, platinum blonde temptress.

In one shot, she perches in the nude on the edge of a bathtub, strategically covered by soap bubbles; in another, she kneels in a shallow pool, her body veiled by a semi-transparent white nightgown.

Though most are indoors, one shot shows a nude Yeager reaching along a pillar on the patio of an abandoned mansion. She snapped it while she and her husband were on vacation in Jamaica.

“Nobody has ever seen that picture,” she says. “I took a chance even going there. … I decided to take these pictures, even though no one would see them, because I thought they would be so artistic and beautiful.”

Much as she enjoyed her work, neither the self-portraits nor any of the thousands of other photos she has taken are displayed in Yeager’s home.

“I love them so much,” she says. “They’re like children— how can you pick one or two? I would cover the walls with photos and it still wouldn’t be enough. So I just kept them all these years for me to look at and feel satisfied with.”

Now that her self-portraits will be satisfying other people, Yeager is hopeful the exhibit will give her the chance to take still more pictures.

“I have no desire to quit,” she says. “If somebody walked in the door today with a pretty girl, I’d take some test shots and try to figure out how to do something different.”

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