Bettie Page Book Cover

10 QUESTIONS: Petra Mason

Two books by cultural historian Petra Mason showcase the late Bunny Yeager's iconic pinup photography

BY ALEXANDER MATTHEWS

The Miami-based cultural historian Petra Mason is back on AERODROME to discuss the extraordinary impact of Bunny Yeager’s photography as captured in her books Bunny Yeager’s Darkroom (2012) and the upcoming Bettie Page: Queen of Curves which will be released later this year.

Why did you create Bunny Yeager’s Darkroom?

I’ve always had a passion for glamorous retro-style, and always been drawn to strong, original women. Back in the early ’90s I fell for both Bunny and Bettie’s charms via a few images collected in postcard form or softcovers. Moving to Miami and knowing that Bunny lived close by and had seemingly been forgotten, it was a dream project to get to create a book on an iconic woman who went from “Miss Trailer Coach, Dade County” to superstar photographer.

Bettie Page by Bunny Yeager Miami Florida 1954

Bettie Page photographed by Bunny Yeager in Miami, Florida (1954)

Describe Yeager’s signature aesthetic.

Bunny Yeager photographed nudes and pinups for the world’s leading men’s magazines and calendar companies, mostly outdoors. The beach was her preferred location and Florida was paradise for her. With her natural instinct for erotic puns and her talent, Bunny knew how to make women look good.

Yeager took thousands of photographs. How did you go about deciding which ones to include in the book?

Hours were spent pouring over slides with Bunny, her agent and her daughter, Lisa, in her Miami Shores studio. Fortunately, a local digital studio had started working with the archive partly because of a museum show of her self-portraits, but a lot more had to get done to create a book of about 250 images.

Bunny Yeager's Darkroom - Process

“Old school cut ‘n paste played an important role in the image flow for the layouts: once the original images were scanned we made contact sheets, then printed them out,” says Mason. “Picture editing was an intense process that took several weeks. Once the selection was made, we used the old glue and scissors method to decide the flow and tell a photo story to create movement.”

And once you had decided? Describe the process of turning a collection of images into a book.

The title of the book, and working thematically helped me keep focus.

Rather than reference a traditional chapter format, I made up appropriate categories: How I Photograph Myself, American Cheesecake, Hot & Sweet, Tomboys & Cowgirls, Icon (all Bettie Page) and Beauty & the Beach and so forth. Also, I worked with a brilliant design studio in New York on the look and mechanics.

Which is your favourite image? 

The playful, provocative self-pinup of Bunny with a string attached to her toe so she could go “click” all on her own.

Bunny Yeager Self-Portait

Bunny Yeager self-portrait  from the cover of How I Photograph Myself, 1964

What makes these images culturally significant?

Having worked both sides on the lens gave her a unique perspective. As a woman photographer photographing women for men, she controlled the gaze. The art world has historically had a tres snob attitude towards pinup photography but now with collectors like New York’s Fulton Ryder and artist Richard Prince re-mixing her work, that may change.

What was the most difficult thing about working on this book?

Trying to find images of Bettie Page with her clothes ON for the cover.

Bunny Yeager's Darkroom cover

What was the most surprising thing you discovered about Bunny Yeager?

The fact that she worked with Bettie Page for roughly 10 months only. Both of their careers were in many ways defined by that brief period 60 years ago.

What has sparked the recent surge of interest in Yeager’s work?

In part, a classy publisher like Rizzoli New York investing in the production of these books. And in part because there is a level of media fatigue that has set in and people have had enough of seeing emaciated, augmented, over-PhotoShopped images of women.

 Yeager recently passed away. What legacy has she left behind?

It was a deeply conservative time in America when women in media were presented almost exclusively as homemakers. But there was Bunny – a true original – convincing housewives, secretaries, airline stewardesses and sales girls to pose nude for her. She had a very modern eye.

Bunny Yeager

Bunny Yeager’s Darkroom is published by Rizzoli New York and is available in South Africa from Kalahari.comBettie Page: Queen of Curves will be released later this year.

Photography: copyright Bunny Yeager, Bunny Yeager’s Darkroom, 2012, courtesy of Rizzoli New York.

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