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Bunny Yeager Is Busy PDF Print E-mail
Written by Anne Tschida - BT Arts Editor   
October 2012

Back in the spotlight, the legendary pin-up photographer is juggling gallery exhibits, a swimwear line, and the release of a new book

BArtFeature_1unny Yeager recalls the moment she was seduced into photography. It was in post-World War II Miami, on the beach at 71st Street, to be exact: “I was laying there getting a tan, as we all used to do, and this blue-eyed man, so handsome, a weight lifter, came over to my blanket. He kneeled on it and he asked me if I wanted to be photographed.”

Yeager would indeed become a model, but more famously, a photographer of other models, helping form the image of the pin-up. Her famous photographs would fill pages of men’s magazines in the 1950s and 1960s, pictures once considered risqué and a little naughty, but that, in today’s leave-nothing-uncovered Internet age, seem subtle and even innocent by comparison.

Sitting in Jimmy's East Side Diner on Biscayne Boulevard, wearing a crisp white blouse with rose-colored flower prints, she has a glint in her eye remembering that early encounter. “We walked down the beach, and you know, everyone looked at us -- we were very good-looking.” As attractive as she was in front of the camera, Yeager knew what to do behind it as well.

When she came across Bettie Page, she knew she could capture the model’s unique look as well as any male photographer. She did, and Page became the pin-up prototype of the postwar era. Yeager recounts the photo shoots that would vault both of them to fame. One involved Page wearing a Santa hat and nothing else. Another included two cheetahs, a leopard-skin outfit, and the (now defunct) Africa USA wildlife park in Boca Raton: “In the end, we only had one hour to work at the park, and I had to hide [the leashes] on the cheetahs in the shots -- they were wild animals!”

ArtFeature_2But times change, trends move on. By the late 1960s, men’s magazines weren’t what they used to be. Aside from Playboy, for which Yeager worked for decades, the classic pin-up aesthetic was no longer in vogue. While Yeager would continue to discover models, photographing them in every type of lush, tropical location she could find -- from beach to amusement park -- her work wasn’t as prominently featured as it once had been.

But then, starting last year, the pin-up pioneer popped back into public consciousness. In a fortuitous twist, the German gallery owner Helmut Schuster, who has galleries here and in Berlin, picked up a copy of the BT and saw a cover story on Yeager’s career (“Famous All Over Again” by Gaspar González, January 2011). Why, he asked himself, had no one devoted a major retrospective to the Miami icon in South Florida? (The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh mounted an exhibition of Yeager’s self-portraits in 2010; it was her first museum show.)

As he recollects that moment, Schuster is sitting in a South Beach diner, on his way to the World Erotic Art Museum down the street. Asked to give the quirky museum a makeover, Schuster has done just that, and is eager to see an exhibit of Marilyn Monroe photos in the revamped space.

He says he thought it was beyond time to highlight the long career of Yeager, and decided to do so in time for Art Basel Miami Beach 2011, putting together 220 of her works for the prophetically titled “Bunny Yeager: Retrospective to the Future.” The show was installed at the Dezer Collection warehouse in North Miami. (Schuster’s own gallery is in the southern end of Wynwood.)

ArtFeature_3The show coincided with other reassessments and rediscoveries of the pin-up queen. Last year Yeager’s work was also featured at Wynwood’s Harold Golen Gallery in a solo exhibit titled “The Fabulous Bunny Yeager.” And this year the interest in Yeager has only gained momentum. Schuster decided that Berlin -- a historic epicenter of cabaret and burlesque culture -- would be a great place to create a permanent Bunny Yeager presence, so this summer the Bunny Yeager Lounge opened in the art hub of Europe, close to, not surprisingly, the Helmut Newton Foundation.

Decades ago, when the lens was focused on her, Yeager came to the realization that certain types of bathing suits literally didn’t fit her. The tall, voluptuous blonde couldn’t always squeeze into those one-piece bathing costumes of the day, she says, so “I made my own two-pieces,” an early take on the bikini.

The space will display Yeager’s photographs on a continual basis, and also incorporate other exhibitions that relate to her work or are branches of her art. The opening night of the Lounge, for example, included a burlesque fashion show to unveil the Bunny Yeager Design Line.

Now, in collaboration with the German apparel firm Bruno Banani, Yeager has redesigned some of her classic bikinis of the 1950s, using updated materials, but still remaining true to the elegant and form-fitting original designs, including the telltale leopard and zebra prints.

ArtFeature_5Back at lunch, Yeager smiles when she talks about the swimsuits. In a sense, these are why she became so skilled in her brand of photography: She had an eye for what made a woman beautiful. “Some of those pretty-girl pictures I took for the men’s magazines back then, they may not be as popular today,” she says. But she adds, “people will always want pictures of beautiful women,” explaining that even now, in her eighties, she has no plans to stop shooting.

To punctuate the fact she is not slowing down, a new book of her work is being released this month: Bunny Yeager’s Darkroom: Pin-Up Photography’s Golden Era, by Petra Mason. Published by Rizzoli New York, the book includes 250 photos, some previously unpublished. There are also passages about another pioneering aspect of Yeager’s work -- her self-portraits. She talks about the tricky ins and outs of photographing yourself, along with organizing and designing the sets.

To accompany the book’s release, Yeager has a number of talks and signings scheduled, including at the Coral Gables Books and Books (October 24, 2012. 7:00 p.m.), the Bal Harbour Books and Books (October 25, 2012. 6:30 p.m.), and the Miami Beach Cinematheque (November 1).

In addition, in mid-October, the World Erotic Art Museum will open a permanent room dedicated to Yeager’s work, and during Art Basel, the W Hotel will host a fashion show, premiering the swimsuit line on this side of the Atlantic. She will also have upcoming shows in Dallas and Houston.

It’s a whirlwind moment for Yeager. Asked if all this activity tires her out, she matter-of-factly says no: “Why wouldn’t I like all this attention? I get to keep on working, signing books, and talking about my work!”

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