Queen of Curves
Interview by Barney McDonald
Book by Petra Mason
Photographs by Bunny Yeager
“Without Bunny, we would not have what are without doubt
the finest images ever taken of Bettie, at her beautiful,
—Petra Mason sultry, zany, comical best, happy in the sun and in her skin.” — Petra Mason
Bernard McDonald is a New Zealand-based film and pop culture writer, and formerly founder and editor “Pavement” magazine, a youth culture magazine that ran from 1993-2006. Focusing on contemporary culture from New Zealand and abroad, “Pavement” featured rising stars in music, art, film, fashion, and design, and consistently pushed cultural & creative boundaries.
Petra Mason is a Miami-based cultural historian and creative director. She is the author of several books, including “Bunny Yeager’s Darkroom” and “Bettie Page: Queen of Curves”, and a contributor to various publications.
Linnea Eleanor Yeager, known by “Bunny”, was a pinup photographer and model based in Miami. Her most famous photos are of Bettie Page, who she worked with in 1954, producing over 1,000 pictures and making Page a household name. Yeager’s one of the first to photograph models outdoors in natural light. Her photos were ubiquitous in the 1950s and 60s, appearing in Playboy, Cosmopolitan, Esquire and more.
An iconic 1950s pinup model known for her black hair, blunt bangs and blue eyes, Bettie Page was one of the first Playboy centerfolds, setting the tastes of a generation. Page was most notably photographed by Bunny Yeager, who captured her outdoors in Miami, and Irving Klaw, who made her the first famous bondage model. She retired in 1959 after a conversion to Evangelical Christianity.
Photographer and filmmaker who operated a mail-order photo business, selling erotic pictures and film of women, sometimes in bondage, becoming one of the first fetish photographers.
Ellen von Unwerth
German photographer and director, who worked as a model for ten years before shifting her efforts to fashion, editorial, and advertising photography.
A classic picture of Bunny Yeager, Queen of the Pinup Photographers, shows the late legend propped seductively, if a little precariously, on a bar stool, one foot touching the ground, the other awkwardly operating a vintage studio camera. She’s dressed in a figure-hugging red leotard, the concertina portion of the camera is the same flaming red, and the backdrop is a soothing, sensual blue. It’s a selfie, of sorts, except the camera is in the shot, facing the wrong way, and she’s looking at a different camera, which has clearly taken the picture. But with blonde locks glowing and white teeth gleaming, she’s beautiful, and seemingly in charge of every facet of the shot.
Classic pinup photography is all about artifice, selling the sizzle, not the sausage, and Yeager reigned supreme during the heyday of her career in the 1950s and 60s. And yet, from her studio base in Miami, Florida, she crafted and amassed a stunning repertoire of pinup pictures of hundreds, if not thousands of girls, somehow making them seem real and alive, sidestepping the cheesecake nature of most glamour photographers of the time. Yeager’s girls were the girl next door. And one of those girls happened to be Bettie Page.
Arguably one of the most photographed sex symbols of the Twentieth Century, Page’s fame is irrefutable. Although she passed away in 2008 at the age of 85 following a lenghty period of relative obscurity, her work with Yeager and the fetish-based shoots she did for Irving and Paula Klaw’s Movie Star News studio in New York City in the 50s immortalised her as the naughty yet nice brunette of countless fantasies. In the last couple of decades an industry featuring books, posters, comics, artwork, memorabilia, documentaries and even clothing has been built on her appeal. Now it’s Yeager’s turn to share some of that limelight, though sadly she too has passed away, coincidentally at the same age as Page, on May 25 this year.
Linnea Eleanor “Bunny” Yeager is no stranger to books of her work. Earlier publications like Photographing the Female Figure, Bunny Yeager’s “Photo Studies,” “How to Take Figure Photos,” “The Art of Glamour Photography” and “How I Photograph Nudes,” reprinted in 1997, are expensive collectors items these days. More recently, the Pennsylvania publisher Schiffer has released a series of Yeager books on such wondrous subjects as Pinup Girls, Bikini Girls, Striptease Artists, Flirts, Femme Fatales, Bouffant Beauties and Beautiful Backsides. However, until recently, one of the few books to take a more circumspect approach to the glamour photographer’s work was “Bunny’s Honeys: Bunny Yeager, Queen of Pin-Up Photography,” published by Taschen in 1994.
Now, thanks to the dedication of journalist Petra Mason, not one but two informative, detailed and beautifully illustrated books have elevated Yeager’s output beyond the pale of mere nostalgia. Thanks to Mason’s efforts, the woman who posed Bettie Page with leopards and zebras, in boats and amusement parks, and sold a cheeky Christmas tree picture featuring the winking model to Hugh Hefner for an early centrefold of his fledgling magazine Playboy, is centre stage in the hearts and minds of those who love beautiful pictures of beautiful women from a bygone age.
Published by Rizzoli New York, Mason’s books “Bunny Yeager’s Darkroom,” published in 2012, and new title “Bettie Page Queen of Curves” have captured the spirit of a woman who captured the essence of beauty in the middle of last century. The Page book particularly underscores Yeager’s contribution to popular culture, reflecting and enhancing the apposite charms of the only woman who could be said to rival Marilyn Monroe for iconic, universal sex symbol status. Yeager published a book in 1963 called “How I Photograph Myself.” Like that book, her shots of Bettie Page, especially those collected in Mason’s Rizzoli book, say as much about the photographer as they do about the model. Few photographers of beautiful women, with the modern exception of fashion photographer Ellen von Unwerth, herself a former model, could lay claim to a similar achievement.
Barney McDonald: How did you come to be involved with Bunny Yeager, Petra?
Petra Mason: Having been enamoured with retro-style for years, I started out dressing up 1920s and Hollywood glamour as a teenager, even collecting books on pin-up and stars of the silver screen. Moving to New York in the 90s, I gravitated towards that scene. Bettie Page was a hero of mine and I was particularly enchanted by the images of Bettie Page in Florida, shot by Bunny Yeager. Years later in Miami I looked her up and was surprised to see her studio was close by, her phone number and address listed. One can only imagine the torrent of juvenile crank callers she must have had to endure over the years, asking her about why she photographed women nude or snickering on the phone about her and Bettie Page. In August 2010, I was sitting on the same stretch of beach that Bunny used as a favourite location in the 1950s and 60s and I felt a strong sense of urgency to get the project done.
BM: What did you both hope to achieve with the Bettie book?
PM: To create a hip, beautifully designed book, the ultimate Bettie Page book, accessing images of Bettie that Bunny had previously not published. To take Bettie out of the darkness and into the sunshine, to remove her shackles and close the door on Irving Klaw’s grimy Manhattan studio and those smutty S&M shots. To celebrate Bettie in what may have been the happiest time of her fractured life. To publish Bunny’s magnificent images of Bettie for the first time in hardcover with quality reproduction, and printed on high quality paper. Digital techniques were used to keep them authentic, colour correcting without changing them in Photoshop. Many of these images were scanned for the very first time. I’m not sure Bunny ever really appreciated that. What she was really pushing to publish were her recent digital colour images of women wearing saran wrap bikinis! But our first book, “Bunny Yeager’s Darkroom,” positioned her and secured her legacy. “Bettie Page Queen of Curves” does the same for both. These are the only books to bring out the true beauty of her images and photography.
“Bettie’s the superstar
model, the queen of curves,
the cult figure we all adore.”
— Petra Mason
BM: Did she see the printed version before her passing in May?
PM: She saw the final proofs, aka “the blue lines,” just weeks before. The proofs are pretty much the entire book, just not yet bound.
A model, dancer, and actress who posed and performed under the name Marguerite Empey. She is known best for her nudism, appearing in many publications, most famously as Playboy’s Playmate of the Month in 1955 and 1956. Webber posed for many famous photographers such as Peter Gowland, Bunny Yeager and Russ Meyer.
50’s Miami-based pin-up model who strikingly resembled Marilyn Monroe. She was the first model to work with Bunny Yeager, and also posed for bondage photos with Irving Klaw.
BM: Who do you feel it’s most about: Bettie or Bunny?
PM: Bettie, but it’s a temple to both. Bunny’s foreword, photographs and voice narrate throughout. Bunny selected the back cover image of the two of them together from a choice of a few. Bunny would have prefered it if we called the book “Bunny Yeager’s Bettie Page” but the publisher wanted Bettie’s name big on the cover. Bettie’s the superstar model, the queen of curves, the cult figure we all adore.
BM: Bunny has published countless books, some featuring Bettie on the cover or within their pages. Was she Bunny’s favourite all-time model?
PM: I think Bunny was Bunny’s favourite model. Bettie was her most popular. Bettie is on the covers of those books probably because that’s what the publisher wanted. I was surprised to find Bettie as a minor entry in Bunny’s 60s book “100 Girls,” where she featured her favourite top models. Bunny actually had other models she really loved to work with, like Diane Webber, who lived in California, and Miami’s Marilyn, Maria Stinger, with whom she was close. She ended up committing suicide in her 30s. Now that’s a story to be told!
BM: Who helped whose career the most?
PM: Bunny’s legacy will live on through her photographs of Bettie. Bettie was a big-time New York model that came to what was then a small Southern beach town, Miami. Other than Bettie, Bunny’s gals were mostly amateurs she’d find through ads in the classifieds or on the street. Bettie was the big star and the most lucrative for Bunny, who had a very long career. But without Bunny, we would not have what are without doubt the finest images ever taken of Bettie, at her beautiful, sultry, zany, comical best, happy in the sun and in her skin. “Bunny Yeager’s Darkroom” and “Bettie Page Queen of Curves” helped Bunny’s career while she was alive by starting a new chapter. A classy international publisher gave her images the star treatment and presented her work in a sophisticated way to a new audience. “Bunny Yeager’s Darkroom” features Bunny’s self-portraits in an entire chapter called “How I photograph myself.” I think those images will stick as part of Bunny’s legacy.
BM: Bunny says of her work with Bettie that she “took her out of the darkness and into the sunshine.” Was that her greatest contribution to Bettie’s career & legacy?
PM: Absolutely. By all accounts, their relationship was professional, not a friendship. They worked together for five months over an intense period. Bunny wanted to make the most of the time she had with Bettie and shot almost a thousand images. The fact Hugh Hefner purchased the Bettie Page in Santa cap shot for $100, more than Bunny had been paid before, must have been encouraging. It was also the first time Bettie Page appeared in a big time publication. During her heyday, Bettie appeared in tons of magazines but mostly pulp. She was certainly not a household name.
BM: The nudes appear right near the front of the book, rather than tucked away at the back as though they’re something smutty or titillating. Was that deliberate?
PM: We intentionally did that, a reverse striptease! Bettie was a true nudist: ‘Nude not naked.’ She was genuinely comfortable without clothes on. Nothing to be ashamed of.
BM: In the book, it says Bruce Weber considers Bunny one of his favourite photographers. Which other well-known photographers is she credited as influencing or inspiring?
Danish fashion model and photographer, who was a beauty queen and Victoria’s Secret Angel before serving as creative director for Nylon and working as a fashion designer.
PM: The pinup photography thing will remain a bit edgy no matter how many Beyonce’s, Madonna’s and Katy Perry’s get hold of it. Miami’s own pinup photography studio, TerriblyGirly, is inspired by Bunny. But they’re true originals so Janette and her crew add their own punk rock, heavy metal, burlesque spin to it. Most famously, photographer and model Helena Christensen nominated “Bunny Yeager’s Darkroom” as her top photography book in 2013 in The Telegraph newspaper, giving the book high praise.
“A true pinup icon has
to be 100 percent natural,
birthmarks and all,
like Bettie Page.”
— Petra Mason
BM: There has been so much written about Bettie over the years. What are a couple of the biggest misconceptions or outright untruths?
PM: Facts have always been a bit thin on the ground in heavily male fantasy-based pinup history. Bettie Page preferred flats, or no shoes at all. She only wore those ridiculously high heels on set. In 1954, when Bunny shot Bettie, she was 32 years old, not 22. The most inaccurate are the Italian books from the early 90s, saying how Bettie was a “supermodel who earned thousands of dollars a session” and that she ran off with the mafia or lived this lavish lifestyle. The whole supermodel thing only happened in the late 80s-90s. And even though she made a good living, better than a secretary would have made at the time, she was hardly a high roller.
BM: Did you ever get to meet her yourself?
PM: Sadly, no. Bettie died in California in 2008 and lived a very secluded life.
BM: What are some of the things Bunny would say to you about Bettie?
PM: She mentioned a couple of times that she’d seen her years later in North Miami in a department store at the checkout counter and she was wearing a knee-length skirt and was dressed very plainly. Bunny recognised her by her particular Southern drawl. She also spoke about the little caravan Bettie stayed in and how she’d tan naked by the river to get an all-over glow. And how Bettie’s landlady allowed her to use her sewing machine to make costumes, which is what she loved to do.
BM: What do you personally think of the pictures Bettie did, from the camera club shoots, to the Irving Klaw studio, to the nature-based work of Bunny?
PM: It’s impossible to find a bad shot of Bettie. While Klaw’s pictures are photographically challenged, it’s how bad they are that makes them good. By all accounts Bettie laughed throughout the torture and dominatrix role play. The camera club ones always seem to me a bit like family holiday snaps you weren’t supposed to see. There’s one other little known photographer that even Bunny was impressed by, Jim Combes, who photographed Bettie beautifully. Those were published in Figure Studies Annual in the early 50s. Without a doubt, Bunny captured Bettie at her finest. They’re also the most professional photographs with regards composition, lighting and technique.
BM: Do you have a favourite picture of Bettie?
PM: Bettie running wild, Tarzan-esque, hanging from a tree. Or maybe tied up bondage-style, poking fun at Klaw’s bondage shots. Or Bettie draped across a mid-century modern bed, looking defiant clutching a plush toy tiger, a riff on the Africa USA images where she poses with the cheetahs.
BM: Did Bettie eventually receive generous payments from the people making lots of money out of her subsequent popularity, like Bunny, Playboy and the like?
PM: Not until her agent stepped in. Until then she lived on Social Security, which ain’t much.
BM: The modelling Bettie did in the 1950s was considered porn in its heyday but is now seen as quaint. Do you think we’ll ever consider porn from our current age in the same nostalgic, easy-going way?
PM: Porn has gone so far it’s got nowhere to go but backwards.
BM: Who do you feel is likely to be the pinup icon for the next generation or era? Or is popular culture too pervasive & pernicious to allow another Bettie to emerge?
Dita von Teese
Born Heather Renee Sweet, Dita von Teese is a modern burlesque dancer, model, costume designer and actress, credited with reviving burlesque performance.
PM: Bettie Page is the once and future pinup. Society’s biggest obstacle regarding letting another Bettie Page emerge is “augmentation”, aka boob and butt jobs. A true pinup icon has to be 100 percent natural, birthmarks and all, like Bettie Page.
Petra Mason’s book “Bettie Page Queen of Curves,” featuring the pictures of Bunny Yeager, is published in hardback by Rizzoli.
All images © Bunny Yeager, Bettie Page: Queen of Curves, Rizzoli New York, 2014.