An interview with the late pin-up pioneer who immortalised Bettie Page and revolutionised glamour photography
Taken from the October 2012 issue of Dazed:
“I was named after my mother, but it would have been too confusing to have the same name around the house, so I got called Bunny. It was a cute little name and it stuck with me. My mother always wanted me to become another Shirley Temple, but I didn’t look anything like Shirley Temple; I had straight hair, not curly, and I didn’t know how to dance. But she was always entering me into beautiful-baby contests and beautiful-children contests; I look back now and feel bad about giving her a hard time because she had very strict parents who didn’t allow her to do anything. She wanted me to be glamorous, and to watch me do the things that she never got a chance to.
I was isolated a lot living in Pitcairn, Pennsylvania. There weren’t any modelling schools or opportunities for models. I lived so far out I had no transportation to get anywhere. I never had anyone to play with, so I made up my own games. Sometimes I would dress up and pretend I was somebody else. I would collect old movie magazines from relatives and dream of being like the stars. But of course, Hollywood was pretty far away from Pitcairn. When we went to the movies it seemed like men were always after the sexy girls, and the girls always seemed to get the good-looking men. That was the way I wanted to live – I wanted to have the best things in life and I thought by being a model, somehow, that’s the way I would get it. And I loved people looking at me. I could feel it all through my body!
After we moved to Miami I decided I wasn’t going to let anything stand in my way. I thought, ‘This is the place. I’m going to change my life, I’m going to be somebody else, I’m going to be the person that I always thought I could be.’ I got a job after finishing high school and saved enough money so I could take a modelling course. I learned the correct way to be a model – you don’t just go out and pose for some pictures, you do it the right way. You learn the walks and the turns, the pivots. I learned about photographer’s shortcomings by posing for them. A lot of them depended on the model to come up with poses, which was ridiculous! Some of them even expected me to be a little loose with my morals, so I had to set them straight! I was there to do a job, not for them to have fun with. My mommy told me never to pose nude, so I didn’t.
I was a big part of the cheesecake era of modeling. In fact I have a photograph of myself when I’m standing on a table over on Miami Beach. I’m in a bikini and I’m holding a platter with a large cheesecake on it with one slice pulled out of it which I have in my other hand and I’m ready to take a bite of it. It’s one of my favorite pictures from that era! Cheesecake was playful and glamorous. I knew I was attractive because my mum was always sending my picture off and entering me into beauty contests. So, I kind of got that idea early on, but I didn’t know how attractive I really was or I could have taken advantage a lot more! It probably was good that I was a little on the shy side rather than on the overzealous side. So I didn’t get hurt by any of that, but it was a good foundation to have.
The transition from being a model to a photographer was very easy, it all blended into one another. I enjoyed taking nude pictures of models; it just seemed very natural to do it. I was always in a very serious state when I was shooting girls. I wasn’t clowning around, taking off my clothes or demonstrating anything like that, no. I was the boss – I was shooting the pictures, directing, paying the model fee, and that’s all I was concerned with.
“I wasn’t clowning around, taking off my clothes or demonstrating anything like that, no. I was the boss” – Bunny Yeager
I worked with the minimum amount of equipment. At times I have had big studios and found that I don’t need all that equipment; I am able to take one light, or two lights, and shoot all the pictures I want to shoot. I really am an expert on lighting, I don’t even have to use a light meter any more. At the start I always used a light meter and I was very careful with my lighting, but after a while, no matter where I went, I could feel the light myself against my skin, I could tell just what to set my camera aperture for. I felt like I was part of the equipment I guess. I never had any assistants, never. I like my brain to be going and thinking about creative things, I don’t want anybody getting in my way. The only one I want there is the model that I can boss around. I can do just do what I want to do.
I met Bettie Page in 1954 and we hit it off right away. She had a reputation of working for Irving Klaw and for taking bondage pictures, and that didn’t sound very good for me because I didn’t do that kind of work. He just shot pictures of girls being tied up, and that was not anything I would ever shoot. I don’t like to see anyone tying up a girl and making herself helpless so she can’t defend herself, and that’s all that looked like to me when I saw them. But I became good friends with Irving and I helped him find some models when he was down here, but he didn’t do any bondage when he was there, he was just doing pin ups at that time.
Bettie was as close to perfection as you could get, I guess. I knew she was special from the very start. She was one of these girls that just looked good no matter what she did. When she was living in Florida she wanted to have that all over tanned look and she had to work on that. She had to lay in the sun a certain length of time every day, and she would do that so that she never had any tan marks, no difference in skin color. Her skin was pure white, but I never saw it because she always had this tan. She lived in a boarding house downtown, and the river ran right close by there. She found a little spot that nobody knew about and she would get up early in the morning and lay on the side of river, tanning. She was very body conscious and would put creams all over her body. Her hair always looked squeaky clean and fresh. She just had a good, wholesome look to herself even though she was very glamorous and sexy.
"Bettie was as close to perfection as you could get. I knew she was special from the very start" – Bunny Yeager
I photographed her and everything I told her to do she did perfectly. She didn’t push her personality on me and let me control the scene of how she would pose. I would tell her what expression to use, even show her things. I would demonstrate poses to her, and we did all kinds of shots, even jumping shots on the beach, leaping shots, crazy shots and serious fashion photos. I paid her the going rate, which was five dollars an hour. I didn’t take thousands of pictures of Bettie – maybe about 800. So even though I have under a thousand photographs of Bettie it’s like I have a large file, because they’re so imaginative. It’s a long time ago, but most of the pictures I took of her were not old-fashioned looking in any way. If you looked at them now they would look like I took them yesterday. There’s nothing dated about them.
I could have gone on photographing her forever until I ran out of film and money, but she disappeared. She went back to New York and stayed there for a while and did some posing and then she came back to Florida. But when she came back I was having a baby and I lost touch with her. She went to Key West, she started to do other things. And from what I understand she got married down there. She was going to become a fisherman with her husband, do commercial fishing. It was a whole different life she was trying to change into.
In 1962 I was hired by United Artists to go to Jamaica and photograph Sean Connery and Ursula Andress on the set of Dr. No for the publicity department. I had an awful time trying to get Ursula to pose for me because they wouldn't let me take her away from the movie set! All the pictures I took are literally just a few feet away from piles of film equipment and I'm trying my best to get her into a good light. It was awful, but I did it, and they loved my pictures. They went all over the world on magazine covers and in stories. They were very nice to me about it; they let me use the negatives for a long time before they made me give them back. They needed to keep the negatives of course, they were the bosses, but they were nice enough to let me make all the prints I wanted to make.
I knew many people in showbusiness by then, but usually I never had a chance to photograph them. They were doing things, or I had to be somewhere where they couldn’t be, but I became good friends with Sammy Davis, Jr. We got along so good because he wanted me to show him how to photograph girls. It was illegal back then for black people to be on the same beach as white folks, oh it was awful! I once picked up Sammy and he got in the front seat with me, in my car, and he had his drummer with him. I also brought Maria Stinger, one of my models who looked like Marilyn Monroe. Sammy said, ‘On second thought, I better not sit in the front seat with you. I don’t want to make a problem for you so I’m going to get in the back seat.’ I thought he was trying to get away from me or something, but then after I thought about it, it made some sense to me. He was the kind of person that you never noticed that he had different-coloured skin. So we drove to the beach and shot pictures and just had a good time together. I guess you can tell from those particular pictures that we were all enjoying ourselves and looked like we knew what we were doing! I can never forget those things, it’s like playing an old movie over and over, it’s just some beautiful times that I had.
In the 60s, the magazine market for my style of photography just dropped off, there was only Playboy and Penthouse. I cut off all my work and used the pictures I had already taken to do photo books. Everything was becoming nuder and risqué. Everybody was trying to outdo the other magazines and I couldn’t compete with that. There were magazines that looked like pornography in comparison to the kind of nudes I shot. I didn't want to do that kind of work, I just didn’t feel comfortable asking anyone to pose like that. I like to see photographs taken in good taste, I don’t like to see anything that appears to be vulgar or exploiting some girl because she’s taking her clothes off. I like photographing something that becomes a beautiful picture.
I made a book called How I Photograph Myself because I thought, 'People don’t understand me! They think I’m just in love with myself!' as they saw me shooting lots of self portraits. But the truth is I wrote it to explain why everyone should photograph themselves, because we have no way of seeing how we look to other people, and we can’t see how we look to take pictures of ourselves. Of course later on everybody had cameras and television cameras and things, but when I wrote that book in the sixties there wasn’t anything like that. As soon as the book came out I got a call from the Johnny Carson show and they wanted me to appear on it and show them how to take pictures of myself. I was on there for about thirty-two minutes. It was overpowering but I enjoyed it for what it was as I got to talk about lighting and everything people needed to know about shooting pictures of girls. It was a good thing for me.
I have no idea how many photographs I have taken, and I’m not going to count them either. I have better things to do than count my photos! But when I look back at my pictures, it doesn’t feel like a different life. I could go out today and shoot the same pictures, if I had the proper girl – I’d still get the same buzz.”
R.I.P Bunny Yeager 1929 - 2014
Bunny Yeager's Darkroom: Pin-up Photography's Golden Era by Petra Mason is available to buy from Rizzoli