Obituary: Wilkinsburg native Bunny Yeager / Iconic pinup photographer, model

March 13, 1929 - May 25, 2014

Photographer Bunny Yeager epitomized the era of the pinup beauty.

She did so not only in front of the camera where, as a statuesque 5-foot, 10-inch vision, she became one of the most sought-after models in Miami. But, more significantly, she did so behind the lens where she persuaded more women to drop their tops for a photo than almost anyone not named Hugh Hefner.

Ms. Yeager, 85, died Sunday in Miami of congestive heart failure.

Born on March 13, 1929, in Wilkinsburg as Eleanor Linnea Yeager, she took the name Bunny from the Lana Turner character in the 1945 film comedy "Week-End at the Waldorf." Ms. Yeager moved to Miami with her family when she was 17 in 1946, where she became a model and won more than 30 beauty titles.

Ms. Yeager began experimenting with photography, including self-portraiture, and soon she would become one of the country's most famous and influential photographers. Celebrated photographers such as the late Diane Arbus, who called her "the world's greatest pinup photographer," and Berenice Abbott championed Ms. Yeager's work.

"She captured an age and a side of culture that swirled around beauty and design and fame," said Eric Shiner, director of The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, where her self-portraits were exhibited in 2010, revitalizing her career. "Ultimately she paved the way for women photographers and women artists in ways that will stand the test of time."

Ms. Yeager's photographs of the late Bettie Page, an actress-model living in Miami at the time, turned both women into household names when Ms. Yeager was 25. Her iconic shot of Page kneeling next to a Christmas tree in a Santa hat and nothing else wound up as the centerfold in Hefner's January 1955 issue of Playboy and cemented the pop culture status of the monthly Playmate of the Month. Page died in 2008.

When Playboy championed the curvaceous yet approachable "girl next door" image in the 1950s and '60s, Ms. Yeager was one of Mr. Hefner's go-to photographers. She ended up shooting eight Playboy centerfolds, along with covers and pictorial spreads. She found one of her models, Carol Jean Lauritzen, in downtown Miami at a bus stop.

Entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. caught the photo bug after taking tips from Ms. Yeager and assisting her on some shoots in the '50s. She designed the bikinis her models wore and is credited with popularizing the two-piece swimsuit in America after its creation in France in 1946. Perhaps her most famous bikini image is the still of actress Ursula Andress coming out of the waters of Jamaica in the first James Bond film, 1962's "Dr. No."

Ms. Yeager's images, shot most often with a Rolleiflex or a Speed Graphic camera, are characterized by their imaginative compositions and exotic locales. Another famous photo of Page depicts her, clad in a leopard-print swimsuit, beside a live cheetah.

Other stylistic hallmarks include a luminosity that seemed to pulsate from every image. A longtime Miami resident, Ms. Yeager shot frequently in the brilliant South Florida light and used a flash even in the daytime.

Ms. Yeager seldom lacked for willing models, hundreds of them and more, who would doff their duds for immortality in print.

"Most girls were afraid if a man approached them. They had no fears with me," Ms. Yeager said in a 2011 Miami Herald profile.

In the years after the Warhol Museum show, Ms. Yeager, in her 80s, enjoyed a smashing revival. She published the coffee table book, "Bunny Yeager's Darkroom" in 2012. Her latest, of more than 30 books, "Bettie Page: Queen of Curves," is due in September.

In 2013, the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., hosted a retrospective show, and she opened a combination studio and gallery in Wynwood, Fla., with Miami's Center for Visual Communication.

Ms. Yeager was played by Sarah Paulson in the 2005 film "The Notorious Bettie Page," which starred Gretchen Mol in the title role.

Ms. Yeager is survived by her daughters, Lisa Irwin Packard of Miami and Cherilu Irwin Duvall of Hamilton, Ohio.

Post-Gazette writer Brett Sholtis and The New York Times contributed. First Published May 25, 2014 11:07 PM


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