World's greatest pinup photographer dies

MATT SCHUDEL
Last updated 13:39 30/05/2014
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Rizzoli

ICONIC: In this undated photo, Bunny Yeager, left, prepares to take a picture of Bettie Page. Yeager, a model who became a leading pinup photographer, died May 25, 2014 at 85.

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Bunny Yeager, a statuesque model who stepped behind the camera to become one of the country's foremost pinup photographers, known best for her alluring images of model Bettie Page, died May 25 in North Miami, Florida. She was 85.

The cause was congestive heart failure, said her agent, Ed Christin.

Before she became a photographer, Yeager was one of the first models to popularise the bikini, sewing the two-piece swimsuits herself to show off her voluptuous figure.

During the 1950s and '60s, she was one of the most prolific and influential photographers of what could be called the golden age of cheesecake. In addition to Page, Yeager photographed eight Playboy Playmates (some of whom she discovered herself), striptease artists and hundreds of other models.

In 1962, while working in Jamaica on the set of the James Bond film Dr. No, she shot a series of striking photographs of actress Ursula Andress in the surf, clothed in a white bikini and a knife.

Yeager was amongst the first glamour photographers to portray her models outdoors, using natural light and saturated colour to create vivid, dynamic images. She favoured active poses and a direct gaze at the camera lens, in what could be interpreted alternately as playful innocence or pure lust.

Her subjects typically wore skimpy outfits, diaphanous scarves or nothing at all. Many of Yeager's more revealing photographs ended up in the pages of men's magazines, but she also published more than 25 books and, in recent years, was featured in museum exhibitions.

Other photographers recognised the originality of her work from the beginning. Photographer Diane Arbus once described Yeager as "the world's greatest pinup photographer."

Turning the camera on herself, Yeager created a remarkable collection of revealing self-portraits. Her work has been cited as a major influence on Cindy Sherman, the artist who photographs herself in a variety of self-dramatising, erotically charged tableaus.

Yeager's most celebrated partnership began in 1954, when she met Page. In one of their first collaborations, Page places an ornament on a Christmas tree while wearing a Santa hat - sewn by Yeager - and a wink. Editor Hugh Hefner paid $US100 for the photo, which was featured in the January 1955 issue of Playboy magazine.

Page was the most widely imitated pinup model not named Marilyn Monroe and had an enormous influence on fashion and style. With her black bangs, well-toned figure and smouldering sexual magnetism, Page came alive when a camera was directed at her.

"She was so cooperative," Yeager told the Sun Sentinel newspaper of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in 2013. "It was like us doing a dance together. I would snap my fingers, and she would do exactly what I told her to do: 'Stand on your toes. Kick your leg in the air. Jump in the air.' "

Before they worked together in Miami, where Yeager spent her entire career, Page had already appeared in a series of bondage photographs, which were published in gritty, under-the-counter fetish magazines.

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Yeager took Page out of the spike heels and into the sunlight, showing her barefoot at the beach, riding a carousel and, most memorably, curled up alongside cheetahs at an animal park. Yeager made the leopard-print outfits and bikinis Page wore in their photo sessions - then asked her to take them off.

"When I told her I thought I might want to photograph her nude," Yeager told the Miami Herald in 2013, "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."

Linnea Eleanor Yeager was born March 13, 1929, in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania. After moving with her family to Miami as a teenager, she adopted the name Bunny from a character played by Lana Turner in the 1945 movie "Week-end at the Waldorf."

A curvaceous 5-foot-9, Yeager modelled swimsuits and entered beauty contests. She said she had a date with the judge of one contest, baseball star Joe DiMaggio, before he married Monroe.

Thinking she could earn more money on the other side of the camera, Yeager took courses in photography and began working professionally in 1953, the same year U.S. Camera magazine dubbed her the "prettiest photographer in the world."

During the peak of Yeager's career, when her pictures were showcased in hundreds of magazines and peekaboo calendars, she was also raising two young daughters. She became so well known that she was a minor celebrity, with guest appearances on television programmes including I've Got a Secret, What's My Line? and Johnny Carson's Tonight Show.

In 1964, she published How I Photograph Myself, a book that described the technical aspects of her work and included examples of her own cheesecake modelling. She sometimes worked as an actress, including having a role as a Swedish masseuse in the 1968 Frank Sinatra detective film Lady in Cement, and occasionally performed as a nightclub singer.

Her first husband, Arthur 'Bud' Irwin, died in 1977. Her second husband, Harry Schaefer, died in 2000. Survivors include two daughters from her first marriage, Lisa Packard of North Miami and Cherilu Duval of Hamilton, Ohio; and four grandchildren.

In the 1970s and 1980s, when men's magazines began to demand more explicit photographs, Yeager stopped shooting nudes altogether, describing the new style as "kind of smutty."

With growing interest in the classic images of Page, who died in 2008 after years of reclusiveness, Yeager had a career resurgence in the past decade. In 2010, the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh presented an exhibition of Yeager's cheesecake self-portraits, followed three years later by a career retrospective at the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale.

With prices for her work skyrocketing, she established a gallery in Miami. The German fashion manufacturer Bruno Banani has created a line of swimwear based on her designs from the 1950s.

Her many books included the self-explanatory Bunny Yeager's Beautiful Backsides and Bunny Yeager's Flirts of the Fifties. A glossy coffee-table book, Bunny Yeager's Darkroom: Pin-up Photography's Golden Era, came out in 2012, and a book of largely unpublished photos, Bettie Page: Queen of Curves, will be released in September.

In the world of cheesecake photography, Yeager said, being a woman could be a distinct advantage. She discovered Playboy's first Playmate of the Year, Lisa Winters, in 1956 simply by saying hello at a bus stop.

"It's easier for a woman," Yeager said, "to ask a girl to take off her clothes."

Here's Bunny fooling the panel on What's My Line...

- The Washington Post

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