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Book Review Bunny Yeager's Darkroom by Petra Mason Rizzoli INTERVIEW with the Author

c) Bunny Yeager's Darkroom
c) Bunny Yeager's Darkroom
Vintage Sleaze interviews author and creative director of Bunny Yeager's Darkroom Petra Mason.

"Bunny Yeager's Darkroom" is about master photographer and pioneer Bunny Yeager,  but it also happens to be the best book ever published about Bettie Page and the best collection of original photographs ever seen of the model.  If you are one of the millions interested in Bettie Page,  buy this book. 

Ms. Yeager's contribution to photography will always be associated with her portraits of the model, as their work together has the spirit of collaboration as much as "job" for both.  Yeager's shots of Bettie Page have none of the misogyny of Irving Klaw and none of  the fetishistic undercurrent of Leonard Burtman, two photographers and publishers of the model's New York poses.  As such it is a delight to see the photographs of Ms. Page reproduced with such care by the art book publisher Rizzoli rather than in the dingy publications Klaw and Burtman put out.  Yeager's photographs here glow with freshness and Florida sun.   They are a revelation, and for that alone this book is remarkable.   

Bunny Yeager's Darkroom is as stunning as Bunny herself, and that is saying something.  Those familiar with Ms. Yeager as model and photographer over the years already know that, but this book presents one of the most important glamor and pin up photographers of the 20th Century in an entirely new light.  A seriously long overdue presentation, and one of those books which elevates what used to be known as low art (cheesecake) into high art (portraiture) and beyond.

Bunny Yeager's Darkroom is a story of gumption and glamor, all originating from a most unlikely place…the eyes of a pin up model herself turned photographer at a time when the field was completely dominated by men.  That pin up photography eventually begat glamor photography was due to a very few inspired photographers, and one of the best was Bunny Yeager.  She is no less important an artist and photographer than Cindy Sherman, Diane Arbus or Annie Liebovitz,  and to have a large amount of her photographs finally available in this elegant format is a prize.  Yeager did far more than photograph Page, although there are many examples of her not published before.  Just as beautiful are the self-portraits and those of other models.  There is enough to justify the purchase for any collector, fashionista or institution.

c) Bunny Yeager's Darkroom

Author and creative director Petra Mason (with the cooperation of Ms. Yeager and an introduction by the best Bettie Page emulator of them all,  Dita Von Teese) has created a tribute befitting the artist.  The story is told largely in Yeager's own words,  gleaned from her numerous essays from instruction books published for photographers in the 1950s and 1960s (now hard to find and illustrated in an appendix) and of course hundreds of photographs.  Never seen contact sheets, beautiful self-portraits and even a model's index!  It might be useful to point out that models who posed for pin up photos were often given pseudonyms in the questionable magazines which published them…along with made-up stories as well.
c) Bunny Yeager's Darkroom

That a few folks considered Bunny an artist decades ago is illustrated by the inclusion of an interview Yeager did with Bettie Page for Andy Warhol's Interview Magazine two decades ago.  We are fortunate to have this body of work published while the artist herself, now in her 80s, is here to enjoy it with us.  I once called Bunny Yeager "unsung" but now the chorus has begun

Petra Mason, Creative Director and Author of Bunny Yeager's Darkroom was kind enough to answer a few questions for Vintage Sleaze:

Like Bunny Yeager, you are a woman interested in the "pin up and cheesecake period" of popular culture, largely a men's field at the time.  Do you feel an affinity towards Bunny Yeager as a woman?  Did you select the project on the basis of the artist's gender? 

We are both bold women. Iconoclasts or outlaws, not sure which! Both of us grew up in isolated areas, Bunny in the wilds of Philadelphia, and me on a farm in the Southern most tip of Africa. Very early on, we both fell under the spell of the world of glamour, but 40 + years apart. Immediately I was drawn to the badass broads with attitude: the full-figured Jane Russell sneering at the camera while literally rolling in the hay, Marlene Dietrich in a man’s tuxedo, looking disdainful. So it was about 15 years ago that I became enchanted by a now iconic image of Bunny and Bettie at Africa USA Safari Park in 1954. It was Bunny posing with her 4 x 5 Speed Graphic camera that really captured my imagination. Her naturally auburn hair up in fraulein braids, her tomboy clam diggers, a bowling 50s shirt. How can you resist the image of confidence: a woman at work with the tools of her trade. For me, that’s completely attractive. As for the book, the project selected me. I was aware that Bunny lived in Miami, and not long after moving here from New York, on an August afternoon in 2010 I was on the beach not far from the old Firestone Estate (now the Fonteinbleau) which happens to have been where Bunny most loved to shoot, and I decided it was high time to get on with it. 

What do you think Ms. Yeager thinks about the neo-burlesque, retro Bettie Page fashion scene of today, and do you think she could have foreseen it?

Bunny loves it, but she’s utterly modern, not old-fashioned like us Jim. 

Ouch.  The illustrations selected for the book, many which I believe have never been published, are astonishing.   Were you granted full access to Ms. Yeager's archives?  Do you have any idea how many original photographs of Bettie Page she may have in her holdings, and if there is much unseen work remaining?

You have an expert eye, Jim. Many of the images in the book have never been published. It was not easy wrangling out of her and I had to have nerves of steel to do so. I don’t think anyone will ever have total access to Ms.Yeager’s archives. She’s very protective and suspicious and at the same time, a total tease, in the good old carnival tradition. Bunny has just unearthed even more never before seen images of Bettie Page, and there are many we did not use in this book.

We at Vintage Sleaze are interested in other photographers of the era, Weegee, Russ Meyer, Harrison Marks...how did Bunny see herself among that group?

Of that crew, Bunny saw Russ Meyer as competition. They were both professional and independent operators pitching photographs to the same publishers. Bunny had no problem fitting in, and let’s face it, they were an unusual group. I mean, imagine them all in a room together. Is there a word for that? Somehow community does not best describe it…(laughs)
Bunny always had her eye on the prize,  and in a very working class way did what it took to get the job done. And if beating Russ Meyer to the darkroom was part of that, that’s what she’d have done.

The Irving Klaw family recently announced they will be auctioning off much of the original Klaw photographs.  Did Bunny know, or circulate with any of the New York professional photographers or amateur camera  club members who shot the model when she was in New York City?  And now that Ms. Yeager is in her 80s, do you know her plans for the archives of her work?

Yes, I read about that. Bunny collaborated with Irving Klaw on a few nudie cuties shot in Florida, and there seems to have been some crossover with models other than Bettie. Two other models who appear in the book, Maria Stinger and even Dondi Penn posed for Mr Klaw, so there was a professional connection  as they were both photographers shooting pin-ups. But as Bunny says in the book about shooting Bettie, “I took her out of the darkness (of Klaw’s studio) and into the sunshine. I took off her shackles (Klaw’s bondage shots). There is a true joy in Bunny’s images of Bettie. Her delight at being naked, and hamming it up for the camera, is palpable.

As for the plans for the archive, that remains a closely guarded secret.

Thank you Petra, both for creating a lovely work and for sharing your thoughts with vintage Sleaze..   

Bunny Yeager's Darkroom 256 pages, Hardbound 2012.  Rizzoli New York
Rizzoli's page for Bunny Yeager's Darkroom is HERE
The Amazon page for ordering Bunny Yeager's Darkroom is HERE
Petra Mason has a website HERE with information on the book as well as current projects

The remarkable photographs above were provided by the publisher and are shown here with permission, all copyrights retained.  The two minute film "Inside Bunny Yeager's Darkroom" is below, with wonderful vintage voiceover by the artist herself.

Bunny Yeager from Petra Mason on Vimeo.

Books and Ebooks by Jim Linderman are available HERE