Bunny Yeager: Miami Pin-up Queen Featured in Two New Shows
A major figure in Miami’s history as a model, photographer, businesswoman, author and feminist, Linnea Eleanor Yeager, who came to be known as Bunny Yeager, is featured in two new shows in Miami, one at Swampspace Gallery in the Design District and one in the spacious lobby of the Copper Door BnB in Overtown.
The Swampspace show called Three Graces, is a rarity, as the lush photos taken of and by Yeager are on display as well a glass enclosed case of letters, invoices, books, and invitations that give a more rounded picture of just how pervasive, ambitious and groundbreaking Yeager was as a businesswoman and perhaps reluctant feminist by necessity.
The exhibit at Copper Door is of beautiful African American and Caribbean models. Through her entire professional career, Yeager showed an interest in exploring the glamour and beauty of models who were overlooked by other mainstream pin-up and glamour photographers, shot in Overtown and Ocho Rios in Jamaica.
She was born in Pennsylvania but moved to the city that would define her when she was 17. She adopted the nickname “Bunny” from Lana Turner’s character Bunny Smith in the 1945 movie Weekend at the Waldorf and went to the Coronet Modeling School and Agency. A buxom blonde, she won numerous local beauty pageants with such dubious titles as Queen of Miami, Florida Orchid Queen, Miss Trailercoach of Dade County, Miss Army & Air Force, Miss Personality of Miami Beach, Queen of the Sports Carnival and Cheesecake Queen of 1951. Photos of a gorgeous, glowing Yeager appeared in over 300 newspapers and magazines.
She is credited with popularizing the bikini, and she designed and sewed many of the outfits she and her models wore, never wearing the same outfit twice while. Yeager started photography to save money by copying her poses and locations in her modeling photographs, taking night classes at a vocational school in 1953. She sold her first picture to Eye magazine for the cover of the March 1954 issue. Pushing the genre, the Washington Post said that her images were vivid and dynamic, “She favored active poses and a direct gaze at the camera lens, in what could be interpreted alternately as playful innocence or pure lust.”
The pure lust angle came to fruition in 1954 when she met Bettie Page, a troubled dark haired beauty who moved to Florida to partly escape the weird world of fetish photography modeling she had dominated in New York City. During their collaboration Yeager took over 1,000 pictures of Page and made her famous, particularly with her nude photos for Playboy Magazine.
Yeager became prolific and successful in the 1950s and 1960s, working extensively with Playboy shooting eight centerfolds in addition to covers and pictorial spreads. She discovered Lisa Winters, the first Playmate of the Year, and Yeager appeared in the magazine as a model five times, often photographed by Hugh Hefner himself.
By the 1970s men’s magazines became more lewd and graphic so Yeager stopped photographing for them, saying they were “smutty. Though she had paved the way for that progression, it was not a road she was willing to take.
She has been cited as influencing Diane Arbus and Cindy Sherman. Arbus called her, “the world’s greatest pinup photographer.” The New York Times said “She is widely credited with helping turn the erotic pinup — long a murky enterprise in every sense of the word — into high photographic art.”
Yeager died in 2014 and her entire archives were recently acquired by Grapefruit Moon Gallery out of Minneapolis and New York, co-owned by Sarahjane Blum and Dan Murphy.
“We at Grapefruit Moon Gallery have always been fans of Bunny Yeager,” Murphy says. “We had previously handled a series of Bunny Yeager contact sheets featuring Maria Stinger taken for a risqué advertising campaign at the Miami based store Seymour Lighting which played off the pun “see more.” Yeager was very technically accomplished and through her decades long career she worked hard and in a mind-boggling number of styles. She was long on our radar as pin-up, photo and art dealers.”
“As I initially explored her archives, I was very much taken by some of the more “mad cap” aspects of her work; specifically the kookier campy shots that show her sharp intuition in showcasing the counterculture that was emerging in the 1960s sexual revolution — The Summer Of Love indeed!”
“Some of the props and locales she scouted and used are really unique within the cheesecake pin-up genre. Her work showing Dondi Penn and a chimpanzee casually cruising in a sports car comes to mind, as does the images of Elaina Lekas and her pet leopard Nero. Yeager’s collaboration with Bettie Page, which shows Page — who up to that point was mostly known as a fetish model — as a natural beauty with a lighthearted style and grace shows her incredible ability to get the most from her models. The timeless appeal of these images to this day — 65 years after they were shot — is the best evidence of Yeager’s vision and impact. These shots with Bettie Page from 1954 are the centerpiece of the archive.”
As for the future of this treasured archive Murphy says “Our plans with this continue to evolve. There is a career’s worth of gelatin silver photographs, transparencies, camera negatives within the archive as well as a number of her cameras, costumes (many made by Bunny herself), timers, lighting devices, model releases, calendars, notes, and so much more. The archive is well organized and still housed in Bunny Yeager’s offices in Miami Shores, and we are slowly working through the best way to catalogue and offer it.”
“Currently, we are working on a handful of gallery shows, providing images for a book on Yeager’s work in Mexico that she was working on at the time of her death, and selling a portion of vintage camera negatives with copyright transfer to buyers. We have also been working with Dennis Scholl & Kareem Tabsch on their upcoming documentary on Bunny Yeager, and expect the release of that film to get even more people excited about Yeager’s work.”
A panel talk on Yeager’s work happens on December 7 at Copper Door at 1 pm featuring myself, Miami Herald award winning photographer Carl Juste, and Grapefruit Moon Gallery co-owner Sarahjane Bum.
Swampspace, 3940 N. Miami Ave, Miami FL
Copper Door BnB, 439 NW 4th Ave., Miami FL