Bunny Yeager, a Miami model and photographer, is best known for working with Bettie Page to transition out of New York’s fetish pinup underworld and letting her shine as a naturally beautiful woman. But Yeager’s archive, recently purchased and explored by the Grapefruit Moon Gallery in Minneapolis, shows that she was also a pioneer in the use of Black models—both African-American and Caribbean beauties. By publishing such photographs as early as the 1950s, she helped shake up the world of fashion photography. Two planned exhibitions and a documentary film about Yeager are currently in the works.
Everyone knows Bettie Page, the sultry, raven-haired model who wowed the pin- up world with her bikini-on-the-beach shots taken in Miami. But the woman behind – and sometimes in front of—the camera was a major figure in her own right. Linnea Eleanor Yeager, who came to be known as Bunny Yeager, was a renowned figure on the Miami arts scene as a model, photographer, businesswoman, author and feminist.
Bunny Yeager died in Miami at age 85 in 2014, and the city is still honoring her memory with a new exhibition of her work. Another exhibition, in Detroit, and a documentary film about her life and career are also in the works.
In 2019, Swampspace Gallery, in Miami Beach’s Design District, exhibition some of Yeager’s less familiar photographs of Black models, as did the Copper Door BnB in Overtown, filling their spacious lobby with her work. The Swampspace show was a rarity, as the lush photos taken of and by Yeager contained letters, invoices, books, and invitations that gave a more rounded picture of just how pervasive, ambitious, and groundbreaking Yeager was as a businesswoman and perhaps reluctant (by necessity) feminist. The Copper Door exhibition contained unexpected and rarely seen 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.
Yeager’s entire photographic archive was purchased by Grapefruit Moon Gallery of Minneapolis and New York. Grapefruit Moon is co-owned by Sarahjane Blum and guitarist Dan Murphy, founding member of Soul Asylum. They have been making available never before seen contact sheets of Yeager’s photographs of Black models.
“Bunny Yeager was curious, brave, artistic and endlessly driven,” says Blum. “The same qualities that led her to pursue a career as a model and pin-up photographer led her to recognize that Black models had as much to offer her camera as white models, even if it took publishing decades to catch up with her awareness of this. Much like the Marie Adams shoot, the context of Miami at the time this shoot was taken enriches the power of these images. Nightclubs across the country, and in Miami in particular were highly contested sites in the fight for desegregation. In 1955, Lena Horne broke her contract to perform for a week at the Miami Beach Copa City, making national headlines citing Jim Crow laws in Miami Beach and musing ‘hell, someday they’ll learn.’ The shots of [La Reine] Meeres, often taken from a low angle, show her as a towering, magnetic, powerful presence in a city which was still deeply hostile to her presence.”
Linnea Eleanor Yeager was born in Pennsylvania but moved Miami, 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, Yeager 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.
Photographs 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 while never wearing the same outfit twice. 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.
Her most famous (and infamous) model, Bettie Page, arrived in Miami in 1954. She met the troubled beauty then; Page had moved to Florida partly to escape the underworld of fetish photography modeling that she had dominated in New York City. During their lengthy collaboration, Yeager took over 1,000 pictures of Bettie Page and made her famous, particularly with her nude photographs for Playboy Magazine.
Yeager has been cited as an influence on 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.”
“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.”
Murphy continued: “As I initially explored her archives, I was very much taken by some of the more ‘madcap’ 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.”
Most girlie magazines were hesitant to showcase Black models. Even Playboy, which marketed itself as a forward-thinking men’s magazine, wouldn’t feature a Black centerfold until Jennifer Jackson in 1965. Yeager’s early photographs of Black models date to the 1950s and include a shot of an African-American beauty queen with a trophy declaring her Miss Bronzeville, 1958.
That model is Marie Adams, and the image showcases Adams’s beauty and Yeager’s clear intent to stand in opposition to racist 1950s culture. Miami beaches had not been integrated when Yeager shot this image. Yeager accompanied Adams to Virginia Key, the historic Black beach which opened in 1945 after seven black swimmers held a “wade in” at Haulover Beach protesting the racially exclusionary policies of Miami’s oceanfront parks.
Yeager’s choice to celebrate the beauty of a Black woman staking her space in a place that was hard won by the African-American community was a political act, though the photograph itself can be seen as a straightforward glamour shot. When Cab Callaway brought his Cotton Club Revue to Miami Beach in 1957, Yeager photographed one of the featured dancers, La Raine Meeres, leaning against a high-end sports car, sunning poolside at an area hotel, and eventually fully nude.
Grapefruit Moon Gallery is working on photographic exhibitions of Bunny Yeager’s work in Miami and Detroit. A documentary film about Yeager by Dennis Scholl and Kareem Tabsch is slated for Fall 2022 release.