I’m honored to feature the following guest post from Ani, The Museum Pinup. Enjoy!
Hello, everyone! Firstly, I’d like to thank Annie for inviting me to write a guest post. It’s an absolute honor and I truly enjoyed working on this. There is just simply so much to say about Bunny Yeager and her contribution to pop culture, the art of photography, and the sexual revolution. Bunny transformed pinup photography and self-portraiture. Being a model herself, she understood how women want to be portrayed. For instance, there was a notably different aura in Bettie Page’s photos by Bunny, as opposed to male photographers. Bettie’s photos taken by Yeager exude a sense of freedom, confidence, and pure fun. However, for the sake of brevity, I’m going to try my best to concentrate on one small aspect of why Bunny Yeager is such a significant woman in the history of photography and portraiture.
The emergence of photography altered art and science drastically, but no genre of art was as intensely affected as the art of the miniature portrait. Miniature portrait painting, which worked as a means of recording physical and personality characters of the subject as well as a symbol of wealth and beauty, allowed geographically dispersed individuals to get to know one another. Think of this as the predecessor to wallet photos or Instagram selfies. So, while the methods of capturing a human subject may have evolved and become quicker and more technological the true essence, and along with that the problems, of portraiture, have remained the same.
In traditional portraiture, there is a clear distinction between the ways a woman was depicted in comparison to a man. Take a look at Thomas Gainsborough’s two portraits, The Blue Boy (1770) and Portrait of Lady Chad (1775). The boy, who is clearly much younger that Lady Chad, is depicted standing firmly, staring directly at the viewers. He is returning the gaze, acknowledging the presence of the viewer and almost challenging it. Though he is timelessly captured in a painting, his direct and stern gaze are active. On the other hand, Lady Chad gently looks away to her right, not acknowledging the viewer. Her soft and delicate features serve voyeuristic purposes. She is the subject of the viewer’s gaze – an object of desire. She is almost completely stripped of her humanity, because in this extremely passive moment captured by Gainsborough, she exists solely for the pleasure of the viewer.
The “male gaze,” popularized by feminist writer Laura Mulvey in her 1975 essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, discussed how the female subject is objectified solely for the viewing pleasure of the heterosexual male spectator, by means of being captured by a male artist, photographer, or cameraman. The female characters in film, or in this case, a portrait, are created for patriarchal purposes.
Bunny Yeager, through the act of photographing women, including herself, and through her writings, took matters into her own hands. She gained popularity by winning multiple beauty pageants, eventually becoming one of the most photographed women in Miami. Her career as a photographer began in 1953, after taking photography lessons at a vocational school and consequently having one of her photographs published in a magazine. Yeager knew what men wanted to see and how women wanted to be photographed. Even though a woman is behind the camera, it does not mean that the male gaze suddenly disappears – the models are still depicted in a manner that would please the heterosexual male viewer. However, Bunny’s intentions were, first and foremost, for the comfort and satisfaction of her female models. One can be certain that if Bunny Yeager had portrayed Lady Chad, she wouldn’t have been delicately looking away. Yeager wanted to use photography to boost women’s confidence, turn the attention on themselves, and show women that they can be radiant, beautiful, and glamorous without subjecting themselves to expectations and standards set forth by a patriarchal society. When Yeager came across her models, she used the camera as a vessel to capture and expose the true essence of the model.
Photography was also a means of self-improvement, exemplified in the photo above. Bunny sits on a high stool with her skin tight red leotard, body positioned in a typical cheesecake pinup pose. Her left shoe is kicked off, and a string is connected to her toes, as a method of controlling the camera on her own. It’s self-documentation and self-presentation. It’s a method of examining herself, appreciating herself and finding things she can improve on, for her own desires and not that of a man who is controlling how she will be depicted on camera. In her 1964 book, How I Photograph Myself, Yeager asks, “What better way for self-improvement than to be your own model and see how we appear to others?” She photographed herself for her own pleasure, her own education, and betterment. The act of self-photography, primarily by women, is not just an elimination of men from the act of photographing female subjects, but it also challenges man’s role in a woman’s journey to self-love, improvement, and acceptance. Why subject ourselves to the scrutiny of men when we can take into our own hands how we’d like to see and present ourselves?
to read more about my process of recreating a few of Bunny Yeager’s infamous self-portraits and behind the scenes photos!