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farewell to a photo pioneer

So long to the queen of cheesecake

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, behind the lens where she persuaded more women to drop their tops for a photo than almost anyone not named Hugh Hefner.

As a result, Yeager became one of the country's most famous and influential photographers. Celebrated photographers like the late Diane Arbus, who called her "the world's greatest pinup photographer," and Berenice Abbott championed Yeager's work.

"She was a pioneer in terms of being an artist," said Dennis Scholl, a Miami documentary filmmaker. "Photography was not deemed high art until the 1950s when Bunny started shooting ... Today, women contemporary photographers are not unusual. Photography is gender-irrelevant but Bunny really was the first."

Yeager died in Miami at 85 on Sunday of congestive heart failure.

Yeager's photographs of Bettie Page turned both women into household names when Yeager was 25. Yeager's 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.

When Playboy championed the curvaceous yet approachable "girl next door" image in the 1950s and '60s, Yeager was one of Hefner's go-to photographers. Yeager wound up shooting eight Playboy centerfolds, along with covers and pictorial spreads.

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.

She 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," Yeager said in a 2011 Miami Herald profile.

Yeager enjoyed a smashing revival after turning 80. 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.

Yeager was born in Wilkinsburg, Pa., as Eleanor Linnea Yeager. She took Bunny from the Lana Turner character in the 1945 comedy Week-End at the Waldorf. She moved to Miami at 17 in 1946.

As a model in Miami, Yeager won more than 30 beauty titles, including one in which a smitten judge named Joe DiMaggio asked her out on a date.

"She has accomplished more to sell the attractions of Miami and its environs than almost anything you can think of, including cheesecake," gushed the Miami News in 1951. She even inspired the term "cheesecake" that has commonly come to refer to pictures of hardly dressed women, said friend Tara Solomon.

A Spanish-language magazine in the 1960s featured a shot of Yeager on its cover clutching a slice of cheesecake under Spanish text for the dessert, tarta de queso. "The term just stuck. We use it so effortlessly but it was Bunny who inspired it," Solomon said.

In 1953, Yeager took night classes in photography at the former Lindsey Hopkins Vocational School in downtown Miami. Her first class assignment turned into a real ooh-la-la moment. She used an old Speed Graphic press camera with exploding hand-held flash and shot at the now defunct Boca zoo, Africa USA. But the animals played second fiddle to her model friends who wore strategically cut leopard-skin bathing suits amid the cheetahs and chimps. A shot of Maria Stinger with two cheetahs wound up on the cover of the cheesecake mag, Eye. Yeager found her career.

"She made it okay for women to celebrate their own sensuality at a time when this was very taboo," Solomon said.

So long to the queen of cheesecake 05/26/14 [Last modified: Monday, May 26, 2014 5:22pm]
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