Last year we lost two of the best photographers of the past 50 years. Jini Dellaccio, best-known as the rock photographer who took the pictures for The Sonics, and Bunny Yeager: a shamefully lesser-known pin-up photographer with an amazing swath of influence. Bunny Yeager is cited as an inspiration by photography greats Diane Arbus and Cindy Sherman. Her photography is shockingly self-effacing, and elicits confidence from her models it seems no other photographer could. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear her influence extended to Petra Collins, Sally Mann, and every last Guerrilla Girl.
The good news is a lot more people than that will be getting familiar with pin-up photography, Bunny Yeager, Bettie Page, and even something called Beefcake photography thanks to the efforts of Petra Mason. Petra is a Cultural Historian who put together three amazing books you have to see to believe, and she was kind enough to answer some questions for American Standard Time. Petra’s response on how you get to be a cultural historian: “Born this way,” and on her own admiration for vintage things:
At one point in my 20s everything I owned was vintage, and mostly 1950s. My mother (who has very good taste) wouldn’t visit me because she hated being reminded of her 1950s childhood. Now I control my vintage inclinations by visiting vintage markets, buying a postcard here and there, a vintage scarf or eyeglasses, vintage silverware or kitchen tools . . . but the real vintage me now finds expression in the font choices, the layouts . . . and that’s years of mental collecting and curating, stored in the archive of my mind.
Having had an early interest in vintage, and always wishing I was living in another era from a very early age, I felt like I was working on the concept my entire life.
Her work with pin-up photography began with Bunny Yeager’s Darkroom, a seductive look at the 50-year career of Bunny Yeager, from pin-up model to photographer and designer. Bunny also wrote how-to magazines on photography full of exacting, professional advice on how to take portraits. It’d be hard though, even with all of Bunny’s wisdom at hand, to take photos as perfect as hers. She was never bound by a style; she experimented with lighting, depth of field, and story telling seamlessly. Creatively, and perhaps courageously, this is how she made a name for herself in an industry overflowing with men, and almost explicitly for men: the world of pin-up photos.
Petra describes Bunny’s archives as:
Precariously balancing piles of cardboard boxes everywhere. She did not invest in museum quality, acid-free archival storage material. Once I’d looked at the mix of slides and negatives, prints and contact sheets, I’d put what I could back into acid-free envelopes then I figured they’d been around longer than I had and survived in dark cardboard boxes so it was a lesson in relaxing my own archival anxiety for me. Bunny was meticulous about keeping records, it was just the organization and storage that was chaotic. Back in the day it seems pin-up photographers kept pretty detailed notes, much like model agencies do today . . . Even King of Bondage, Irving Klaw, kept pages of notes on his models, including what their hobbies were. In both books I’ve noted the film speed, the camera used and aperture where possible.
It may have had chaotic beginnings, but Bunny Yeager’s Darkroom comes across as a concisely annotated, keenly curated photo collection. With opening commentary from both pin-up revivalist Dita Von Teese and Petra Mason I learned volumes just by cracking the cover. What’s better is that on top of being a photographer Bunny Yeager was also a talented writer, and her essays and instructions on photography are included. With old-fashioned courtesy and the patient grammatical correctness of a school teacher, Bunny’s musings on how to take photos come across as a motivational speech to love yourself, or at least work with what you’ve been given. The fact that she was the progenitor of her style is as thrilling to read as listening to the first sounds of rock ‘n’ roll. She was a prolific professional model, a bikini designer, and photographer. In essence, Bunny was self-realized. She was born good-looking, and lived hard-working, and it translates to the models she photographed. Bunny’s work is about finding a balance in a world where women weren’t even encouraged to consider themselves first.
On working with the great Bunny Yeager, Petra had this to say:
I spent many hours with Bunny. At first I was very reverential and gushed about what a fan I was and how much of a genius I thought she was. But Bunny was very no-nonsense, kinda “love me less, pay me more.” I don’t blame her at all, one can only imagine the hundreds of hopeful gals with Bettie Page bangs all starry-eyed telling her how much they adore her and hoping to work with her. In our first meetings I must have done all the things many had done before: get all gushy, attempt to swiftly gain access to her archive, promise to help organize . . . Over the past four years working on the two projects we had a few style clashes. I was touched to hear a Podcast she did for The Drunken Odyssey – she said she had no idea the books would be such a huge success, and said how different “Bunny Yeager’s Darkroom” was from the others because (her words) ‘There’s something different about this book, it breaks out of the mold it seems and it goes inside me.’
She was very smart and understood the hype mediums at her disposal at the time. To my taste, her late ’50s and 1960s publications were the best. The blonde leggy woman photographer photographing pin-ups schtick was a genius marketing idea. There are a couple shots of Bunny photographing contestants at the Fonteinbleau in the early 1950s – the looks on the faces of the surrounding crowd are a mixture of horror and dismay. It can’t have been easy being so visible and risque in the very straight-laced Miami of the 1950s. But she had to have liked the attention, and it led her to meet her first husband Bud. They met at a club for tall people, he pulled out a shot of her in a pile of magazines.
Bunny Yeager’s Darkroom is over 200 pages of color and black and white photographs, definitively annotated with notes from Yeager herself such as film speed and aperture, as well as full of her own essays on technique, and philosophy behind her art. Bunny’s photography ranges from herself, to various models, and even some of her work with Bettie Page. The bulk of that work, which took place over one year’s time in 1954 resulting in over a thousand images, has also been made into a book called Bettie Page Queen of Curves.
A concise document on the time Bunny and Bettie found each other (it’s vague, but they likely met through Miami Herald photographers, or Irving Klaw studios in New York, Petra tells me), Queen Of Curves is the application of Bunny’s philosophy and talent put to the test. Two titans of vintage photography –both models, both renowned by then– working together. I thought I’d seen what there was to see of Bettie Page, but the book is full of never before seen shots culled by Mason directly from Yeager’s archives. The curation is gorgeous, the layout is a mid-century minimalist homage, and there are over 250 pages of photos of all kinds. As Petra tells it, “The themes for the books came really easily. All my years working in the fields of photography, styling, art, publishing and of course, my insatiable appetite for vintage everything came into play,” but anyone with even a minute of training in design (i.e., me) knows that this kind of simplicity is hard to achieve with this volume of information. Petra’s work here (in combination with New York studio, Pure + Applied) is impeccable.
Bunny’s famously known for her beach photography, but she gets Bettie in costumes, on sets, in humorous, and completely unflattering situations. The result is an astounding look at the confidence of two professionals in their prime. Included are interviews with Bettie by Bunny herself featured in Andy Warhol‘s Interview Magazine, and Page historian Jim Linderman. The book pulls no punches, laying out both the beauty (in pictures) and the sadness (in writing) of Page’s life. It’s an astounding look at the most iconic pin-up model ever, though the eyes of another, iconic, model.
Though you won’t detect it in her photos, we now know Bunny and Bettie’s work must have been difficult, if not dangerous at times. Petra had this to say :
Bettie seems to have used humor as her weapon. One assumes the creepiest by far must have been Irving Klaw, who did the bondage shots in New York. But Mr. Klaw seems to have been restrained (excuse the pun) by working with his sister Paula, who was also a photographer and sometimes stood in as a masked model in S&M sessions when girls never showed up of a third person was required. Lets face it, Bettie’s experience with men was pretty miserable, so her Camera Club excursions she remembered as homey, family-type weekends away, which is sadly accurate when you consider her home life. As fond of the Camera Club gigs as she seems to have been, at least one of them left her feeling violated, after she got drunk and got snapped in pornographic poses.
I was also pleased to learn of another upcoming project Petra Mason has: Beefcake. Described in the press release as “a Herculean collection of male nudes culled from vintage magazines of men for men. A lighthearted celebration of the male physique at its best, this entertaining volume features sporty and wholesome specimens championing the ideal male figure. Beefcake includes photos selected from private collections of rare male pinups from the 1940s to pre-disco, but it also showcases images and layouts from physique magazines with titles like Muscle, Adonis, International Nudist Sun, Tomorrow’s Man, and Buck and Champ.”
These photos of male pin-ups are obviously rare. This collection is probably one of the first of its kind presented this way. Petra’s comments:
Bunny had some Beefcake shots which we ran in “Bunny Yeager’s Darkroom” of a lifesaver doing handstands on Miami Beach and some acrobatics with a model. She had very little as she explained “it never sold as well.” The Beefcake idea of course was linked, in some ways I felt it’s only fair to turn my gaze on the fellas who were the male pinups of the time. I met a collector with a large collection of Beefcake photography, and soon discovered more and more collections. A major difference being that the collectors whose collections I worked with tend to take Beefcake very seriously. In part due to the fact that it is an “unknown” secret history, and in part because these models have a heroic aspect. Homosexuality was illegal so these physique magazines and photographs were presented heavily as health and fitness magazines. Much more hush hush.
To anyone who is a real pin-up fan this is bound to be an exciting discovery as a niche in the genre. Mason has collected various photographs from a multitude of photographers (Bruce of Los Angeles, Kovert of Hollywood, Western Photography Guild, Don Whitman, and Kris Studio, and the previously unpublished D. R. Parker and the covert Karoll of Havana) and organized the book into themes. It features an opening essay from drag queen Lady Bunny and layouts with titles like “Peak of Perfection,” “Swords & Sandals,” “Dare Devils,” “Locker Room,” “Demi Gods,” “Lonely Sailor,” “Rugged & Rough,” and “Gladiator,” which you can just about imagine without even seeing (though you must see them. You MUST)!
Still, for all the daring and beauty of Bunny and Petra’s work, I had my hangups. Why is pin-up so cheesecake? Why, after centuries of artistic nudes in paint, did the photography of nudes become borderline pornographic? Didn’t painters like Schiele, Klimt, and Courbet‘s widely accepted works of “high art” display sexually suggestive matter? Can this stuff possibly be more shocking than Peter Paul Reuben‘s “Lida and The Swan“? I didn’t expect Petra to have the answer, but she gave me a very good one, which you might want to use when your house guests ask about your new coffee table books:
The art world has always had a tres snob attitude toward pin-ups. In part, it’s the fault of the photographers and the publishers who were more interested in making a sale than limiting an edition, so there are genuine authenticity issues, and the art world prides itself on adhering to “the rules” as that is much of what the perceived value hinges on. New York artist Richard Prince, who is considered a “top shelf,” blue chip artist commanding major prices . . . he is the man most likely to change the attitude towards pinups and get them out of the gutter. I was beyond thrilled to discover that both books, Bunny Yeager’s Darkroom and Bettie Page: Queen of Curves, were sold at his New York store, Fulton Ryder. Both he and another top artist Marilyn Minter are into pinup and glamour, and both are strong believers in the return of pubic hair, as is evident in Marilyn’s new book “Plush.” Now that’s a cause we can all believe in.
Bunny Yeager’s Darkroom and Bettie Page Queen Of Curves are out now. Beefcake is available March 15th 2015 and can be pre-ordered. All titles are on Rizzoli, New York publishers of exquisite illustrated books.