Bunny Yeager had success as a model in Miami in the 1950s, but she wanted to be a photographer. She saw her chance when she met the little-known Bettie Page, who had modeled for under-the-counter photo sets that specialized in sadomasochism.
Yeager took a somewhat more wholesome, holiday-themed photo of Page — nude except for a Santa hat — and in 1955 sent it off to fledgling magazine Playboy. "I figured because they were new they might pay attention to an amateur, and that's what happened," she told the London Telegraph in 2012.
FOR THE RECORD
A previous version of this article incorrectly reported Yeager's date of birth as March 13, 1930, and her age at the time of her death as 84. In fact, she was born March 13, 1929, and was 85 when she died.
The photo launched her career as one of the most successful pinup photographers, often with Page — who became an international sex symbol — as her model.
Yeager, 85, died Sunday in a nursing facility in North Miami. The cause was heart failure, said her agent, Ed Christin.
In recent years, along with a revival of interest in Page, who died in 2008, there was much renewed appreciation for Yeager's photography. Her work was the subject of several gallery and museum shows, such as the "Bunny Yeager: The Legendary Queen of the Pinup" exhibition at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh in 2010.
Yeager worked with numerous models over the years, but said that Page was uncommonly cooperative.
"It was like us doing a dance together," Yeager said in an interview last year in the Sun Sentinel newspaper in Florida. "I would snap my fingers and she would do exactly what I told her to do: 'Stand on your toes. Kick your leg in the air. Jump in the air.'"
There were pictures of Page frolicking on the beach in Key Biscayne, dressed in a bikini that Yeager designed and made. Another locale was a wild animal park in Boca Raton, Fla., where many of the animals were not caged. Page, dressed in a leopard-print swimsuit, was shown sitting among real cheetahs.
Yeager came to be admired for her use of natural light, sometimes enhanced by flash even in daylight, to make a model's skin look luminous. But unlike nude photographers whose depictions of women were hyper-sexual and pumped up, Yeager found sensuality in a more natural look.
"Bunny has that good understanding of how to photograph the female body. At the same time, she knew how to captivate men's sexual fantasies," Miami gallery owner Harold Golen told the New York Times in 2011 when the gallery hosted an exhibition of Yeager's work. "Her women are real. None of them are spray-tanned. Their breasts aren't ballooned. They have curves and a bit of cellulite."
The 1950s and 1960s were Yeager's boom years, with her working for several magazines. She appeared on the quiz show "What's My Line" and had a few roles in movies, including as a Swedish masseuse in the 1968 Frank Sinatra detective film, "Lady in Cement."
The statuesque, blond Yeager was also known for taking pictures of herself, using a timer. But with no full nudity in those.
In the 1970s her career as a photographer ground nearly to a halt. Magazines were getting more graphically anatomical. That was over the line for Yeager, who prided herself on making models comfortable and earning their trust. "You had magazines like Penthouse ... kind of smutty," she said in the Sun Sentinel interview. "They had girls showing more than they should."
"I'm not doing it to titillate anybody's interest," she continued. "I want to show off how beautiful my subjects are, whether it's a cheetah or a live girl or two of them together."
She was born Linnea Eleanor Yeager on March 13, 1929, in Wilkinsburg, Pa. She gave herself her nickname after seeing the 1945 movie "Week-End at the Waldorf" in which Lana Turner played a character named Bunny Smith.
The inspiration for her photography also came from a movie star — she spotted a magazine pictorial of Rita Hayworth. "She was posing on a bed in what looked like a slip," she told the Miami Herald in 2013. "It was probably a nightgown, I know that now, but it wasn't like any nightgown I'd ever worn."
For fun, Yeager started taking pictures of friends in slightly risque poses. But nudity was out of the question. "Where would we even get something like that developed?" she asked.
When she was 17 her family moved to Florida, where she won local beauty contests and got ample work as a model. In 1953 she enrolled in a photography night class at a vocational school. For one of her assignments, she took model pals — dressed in leopard-print swimsuits — to the same animal park where she later shot Page. One of her photos ended up on the cover of Eye magazine and her career began.
Yeager was married twice, and even became a Girl Scout leader. "Nude photographer and Girl Scout leader, that was Bunny," Christin said.
When her work was rediscovered after so many years of little work as a photographer, Yeager was thrilled. "It's exciting to find out that I'm appreciated by so many people," she told the Miami Herald in 2011. "The phone hasn't stopped ringing. People want to see me.
"It's like my life is starting all over again."
Yeager is survived by daughters Lisa Packard of North Miami and Cherilu Duval of Hamilton, Ohio. Yeager's first husband, Arthur Irwin, died in 1977. Her second husband, Harry Schaefer, died in 2000.