Fashion

05.31.14

The Queen of the Playboy Centerfolds

A pioneering photographer in the 1950s, Bunny Yeager discovered the iconic Bettie Page and helped establish pin-ups. Yeager died this week at 85, but she never stopped scouting new subjects.

Bunny Yeager had her hand in all that was titillating in the 1950s: nude photo shoots, bikini swimsuits, and Playboy centerfolds. Fans of Bettie Page have her to thank for discovering the rule-breaking pin-up girl and outfitting her in animal skins. It was Yeager—a pioneering photographer with a certain knack for getting pretty women to take their clothes off—who snapped her way through the male-dominated industry to become the pioneering eye behind the classic centerfold.

The model-turned-photographer-turned-author died at 85 of congestive heart failure on May 25, leaving behind a pin-up legacy of cheesecake negatives and more than 30 books with salacious titles like How I Photograph Myself, Bunny’s Honeys, and Bunny Yeager’s Beautiful Backsides.

Dabbling in night school photography classes in Miami in 1953, a 23- or 24-year-old Yeager quickly made a splash. For her first open-ended assignment, she went to a cage-less zoo called Africa USA and photographed friends frolicking with wild animals. Her teacher demanded she mail them into magazines, and they landed on the cover of a publication called Eye.

Yeager, herself a statuesque blond model and 30-time beauty pageant winner, was just as comfortable in front of the camera. That year, she was dubbed the “prettiest photographer in the world” by U.S. Camera magazine.

“The more I thought about it, the more sense it made,” she told the Sun-Sentinel in 1998. “I knew how to pose and set up a photo, yet the guy behind the camera was making all the money. Why not do it myself?”

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Marice Cohn Band/Miami Herald via Getty

In 1954, she would return to Africa USA with Bettie Page, a young model who at that point had only appeared in fetish magazines and movies. Yeager crafted the iconic shot of Page clad in a leopard-print bathing suit that the photographer had sewn herself, frolicking with cheetahs outdoors. A year later, Page was Playboy’s first Christmas centerfold, wearing only a Santa hat, and Yeager was $100 richer. It was the first of the eight centerfolds Yeager shot—the last making her $15,000.

“Oh, she was beautiful! She had beautiful hair, with a natural sheen, and never a hair out of place. A great figure, so tan,” Yeager remembered of Page in a Miami Herald interview last year. “And when I told her I thought I might want to photograph her nude, she said, ‘Funny, I sunbathe nude and I have a tan like this all over.’”

“And it’s easier for a woman to ask a girl to take off her clothes.”

It wasn’t just Page who Yeager discovered—she had an eye for finding the next pin-up. In 1956, she happened across the petite, blond Lisa Winters boarding a local bus in Miami. For three days in a row, Yeager returned until she spotted Winters again and persuaded her to pose for a photo shoot. Winters became the first Playboy “Playmate of the Year” in 1957.

Eight years later, Yeager was taking the iconic shot of Ursula Andress, the Bond girl who starred in Dr. No, posing in a white bikini with a knife on her hip and two conch shells in her hands. Yeager took the photo while balancing on a raft in a muddy Jamaican swamp. Her use of the bikini, which was invented in France, popularized the skin-baring, two-piece swimsuit in the United States.

“Models trust a female photographer because they think she’ll be more compassionate about their flaws,” Yeager once said. “And it’s easier for a woman to ask a girl to take off her clothes.”

Yeager was no stranger to the other side of Hugh Hefner’s magazine. She posed for it herself under the headline, “Queen of the Playboy Centerfolds.”

Though she had kept a low profile over the last few decades, Yeager recently had been thrown back into the spotlight. Last year, Miami’s Bunny Yeager Studio opened, and the photographer was working on a collection of never-before-seen Page shots, called Bettie Page: Queen of Curves, which will be published in September to coincide with the 60th anniversary of their first photo session, and German designer Bruno Banani announced he would make a line from her swimsuit designs of the 1950s. The heyday of cheesecake photos has cycled back around and is again en mode. And Yeager never stopped brainstorming potential subjects.

“I’d love to work with that girl who gets in all the trouble,” she told the Miami Herald. “What’s her name? Lindsey Lohan, that’s it. She’s just like the girls from the past, the way she moves, the way she poses. Classic. I don’t know why she gets in all that trouble.”