It is difficult to overstate the cultural influence of Bettie Page, the iconic 1950s pinup who has come to embody the rebellious sexuality that coursed below the conservative skin of the Eisenhower years.
The banged and buxom Page continues to be a touchstone for many contemporary trends that luxuriate in a certain brand of hip nostalgia, from fashion and television to cocktails and nightlife. Burlesque star Dita Von Teese and the retro stripper movement found in dance troupes across South Florida can trace their DNA back to Page, as can hit TV shows such as “Mad Men” and “Magic City,” their provocative lingerie and sexual tension a metaphor for an era celebrated in a then-young Playboy magazine.
None of this might have happened without Page. And Page would not have happened without Bunny Yeager.
On Saturday, the Museum of Art, Fort Lauderdale will open the exhibit “Bunny Yeager: Both Sides of the Camera,” a selection of more than 60 images from the longtime South Florida photographer. They will include familiar shots of a frequently unclothed Page and other models, self-portraits, as well as several photographs Yeager took of model Paz de la Huerta (“Boardwalk Empire”) specifically for this exhibition, her first new pictures in two decades.
The exhibit is part of a wave of popularity for Yeager that includes a documentary film carrying the imprimatur of influential director Wim Wenders, a swimsuit line, a book titled “Bunny Yeager's Darkroom” and a Wynwood gallery devoted to her work that opened in February.
At 84, Yeager is having her most-profitable year ever, according to her agent, Ed Christin.
“I feel good about it. I feel I’m being appreciated,” says Yeager, seated at a table in the center of her gallery as preparations were being made around her for the Fort Lauderdale exhibit. “People didn’t know about me, that I did exist. But, you know, I haven’t shot pictures in a long time.”
The Fort Lauderdale show, organized by the Museum of Art and Galerie Schuster Berlin, will be Yeager’s first solo museum exhibition.
Museum curator Peter Boswell says that what may surprise visitors is the exhibit’s “incredible freshness.”
“A lot of these photos are nearly 60 years old, yet still seem very alive, very fresh,” Boswell says. “The women in them seem very independent and confident. They don’t look like the cutesy pinup photos you’re used to seeing.”
While Yeager and Page are inextricably entwined, the model was more of a means to an end for the photographer. Yeager wanted her work in Playboy (“because I heard they paid more than anybody else”), and Hugh Hefner saw the value of publishing her photos of a then-unknown Page.
The two met in 1954, when Page called Yeager from New York on her way to a vacation in Miami. A model who was not picky about the work she took, including bondage motifs by underground photographer Irving Klaw, Page’s best attribute was that “she was so cooperative,” Yeager says.
“It was like us doing a dance together. I would snap my fingers,” Yeager recalls, “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 … ’ “
They took photos all over South Florida, and these images of Page, who seems to glow in the luminous natural light that is Yeager’s signature, became symbols of confident self-determination long before the feminist movement.
At the time, Yeager was a housewife “taking care of my husband,” with two young children. She also was a Girl Scout leader for a troop of handicapped youngsters (her daughter is deaf).
“I don’t know how I did all these things. Sometimes, I look at all the old pictures, and I say, ‘How did I do that?’ “ Yeager says.
And now, as an octogenarian, she’s back at work in the new Bunny Yeager Studio. She is being bombarded by models who want to be photographed by her, including one who recently flew in from Las Vegas for a shoot.
Yeager also is inspiring a new generation of female photographers.
“There must be a cult out there. Young girls seem to know about me and want to be like me. They want to be like Bunny Yeager, they want to take pictures of girls. They want to know how I did this," says Yeager, taking some satisfaction in this addition to her legacy.
Yeager will encourage these woman to develop their own style, but hopes to pass along the idea that photos showing nudity don't have to be vulgar.
"It’s not like this is a man’s sport and you have to play by the old rules of the man," she says.
Yeager is slower on her feet these days, but remains quick with her opinions and seems eager to begin a new phase of photography.
"Not only is it the fact of the gallery, it’s also a real working space for her,” says Barry Fellman, who manages the Bunny Yeager Studio. Fellman, executive director of the Center for Visual Communication in Wynwood, is a longtime friend of Yeager who first showed her work in a Coral Gables exhibit titled “Sex Sirens of the Sixties” more than 20 years ago.
The gallery, which has no sign out front, is a spartan, urban space with a gray concrete floor and white walls, an uncluttered backdrop for dozens of color and black-and-white Yeager prints that carry price tags in the thousands. The tone is broken by a single wall near the entrance painted a dusky rose, a color chosen by Yeager.
“She’s very energized about starting to shoot again,” Fellman says. “She just shot her first pictures for the Fort Lauderdale show, and it’s the first time in 20 years that she’s shot.”
Yeager says her approach to photography hasn’t changed. She’s not interested in digital, preferring the twin-lens-reflex action of the old Yashica Mat and the Rolleiflex. Her goals haven’t changed, either.
“I’m not doing it to titillate anybody’s interests,” she says. “I want to show off how beautiful my subjects are, whether it’s a cheetah or a live girl or two of them together. That’s more important to me than anything.”
BUNNY YEAGER: BOTH SIDES OF THE CAMERA
When: Saturday through Oct. 6; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, noon-5 p.m. Sunday.
Where: Museum of Art, Fort Lauderdale, 1 E. Las Olas Blvd.
Cost: $10, $7 seniors and military, $5 ages 6-17, members free
Contact: 954-525-5500 or MOAFL.org
Special event: Yeager will attend "A Dialogue with Bunny Yeager" 3-4 p.m. June 29 at the museum. Admission is free. RSVP: 954-262-0227 or firstname.lastname@example.org
More info: BunnyYeagerStudio.com
Photo: Cristobal Herrera, Sun Sentinel