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BETTIE-PAGE

PIN THIS UP

by Petra Mason and John King / 21.01.2015

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Said to be the only rival for Marilyn Monroe’s sex-symbol status, Bettie Page – the queen of curves, bangs, blue-eyes and bondage – was one of America’s most scandalous pin ups of the 1950s. Photographed extensively by the only female pin up photographer of the day, Bunny Yeager, this pair of talented beauties created some of the most iconic photographs of the era.

Although the pair continue to influence fashion, photography and all things vintage and Pintrest worthy today (hello Dita von Teese); it appears that nothing quite compares to the playful, erotic naturalness captured by Bunny, who passed away in 2014.

Miami-based, South African born Petra Mason is a cultural historian and creative-director who is the brain behind some of the art world’s most beautiful books. Her latest book, Bettie Page: Queen of Curves, is a collection of intimate photographs by Yeager of the Playboy nudist model.

Carefully selected from Yeager’s extensive archive, the collection includes over 200 iconic and never before seen images of Bettie; with accompanying text including the only one-on-one interview between Bunny and Bettie; background on their relationship; detail on location shoots and more. The book is said to be the most comprehensive collection of Bettie to date.

American writer and literary reviewer John King chats to Petra about the process of putting together this captivating book – which explores who Bettie Page was, her working relationship with Bunny Yeager and the significance of this game-changing female-driven photography…

John King: What made you so interested in this material?

Petra Mason: Well, from an early age I’ve been interested in this type of material, starting out as a 10-year-old dressing up in these Hollywood glamour-type styles, so of course for me knowing about Bunny Yeager and Bettie Page was completely normal. To this day I find myself amazed when people don’t know about who these critical cultural figures are in my universe.

Bunny Yeager did take the most extraordinary images of Betty Page, and they were all taken over a surprisingly short amount of time in Miami. I had no idea that it was really just five short months that they did this body of work. In true Bunny Yeager style, the minute she heard this real New York model, Bettie Page, was going to be on the beach in Miami, effectively on the run from the law, because she was under investigation for the bondage work she did with Irving Klaw – the name alone describes the man. He was quite a character.

BETTIE-PALM-LEAVES

JK: Quite an Irving, and quite a Klaw.

PM: Absolutely, absolutely. And even smaller than Bettie was. She was 5’5”, and so they must have been quite a team. So anyway, when Bettie came to Miami, Bunny jumped at the chance to get to work with her. Bunny had some friends working in the newspapers, because she was a pin up model herself, and so she – 25 years old at the time – borrowed a friend’s little ramshackle studio in South Beach and immediately got to work shooting Bettie.

Being as practical as she was, Bunny decided that given that this was the first time she’d had a model who was prepared to pose naked, she made sure to get those shots first, just in case she changed her mind or ran off somewhere.

So her very first experience with Bettie Page is everybody’s fantasy experience: Bettie Page wandering out of her tiny dressing room wearing just her robe, and then disrobing pretty swiftly, which was completely natural for her. She was a true nudist. Not many people can get away with that level of nudity without looking much more exposed than Bettie did. She just looked completely natural naked, and we have a lot of naked images of Bettie Page in the book, because it was quite hard to find pictures of her with her clothes on. For the cover, it was quite a challenge.

BETTIE-ON-BOAT

JK: One of the things that makes Bunny’s photography so special, and it reminds me of the current resurgence of pin-up photography and burlesque, is that it’s very female driven. It’s not men telling women, “Okay, Do this.” That’s kind of the porn model, nowadays. Instead, men are invited, but women seem to be driving it. Bunny, while she was very professional and kind of a ruthless business person, nevertheless only wanted the women to look beautiful. She would be picky about her models, but she was also very protective of the way they would be presented.

PM: Absolutely, absolutely. She no doubt had some experience with that whole underbelly of the nudie-cutie business in Florida. Certainly Bunny was aware of how far things could go. She gave up photographing for quite some time because things got so graphic and grotesque. She certainly did have her models’ best interest at heart. I’ve learned that her models feel quite protective about Bunny. They really are very devoted to her. I think the experience of actually working with her professionally was quite unique for them, and I think they found a real sanctuary in working with a female photographer.

Of course, nowadays, it’s so much more ever-present, and so many women are great photographers. But you can just imagine how she was regarded at the time. In the 50s, in Miami, which was enormously segregated and terribly conservative, she was really the talk of the town.

BUNNY-AND-BETTIE-BEACH

JK: And the technology. You can be an amateur and pull off some pretty effective, semi-professional-looking material [today]. That was not the case in the 50s, which meant that getting people who had access to that technology and who could use that craft in such a way also made it just that much more rare that a woman was running the show like that.

PM: Oh, it’s phenomenal. And when you consider how much effort just goes into [preparation]… Today I decided to get dressed up and glammed up and get my hair and make up done. It took like three hours, whereas Bettie Page did it all on her own, with very little, and very often they were just standing under palm trees getting ready for shoots.

The props are always minimal. I love that they probably did a lot of nude shots because they ran out of things to wear. I so enjoy that kind of do-it-yourself improvisation, which is completely a contrast to nowadays, you have all sorts of assistants and god knows what, but back then it was just totally guerilla-girl style, really. It’s remarkable that Bettie couldn’t look bad from any angle.

It’s evident in the pictures because Bunny shot so much of her. One of the things that always intrigued me about the way that Bunny shot is that she just took frame-after-frame-after-frame. She wasn’t very precious about saving her film, and any of us who are old enough to have worked with film remember that like, “I hope I got a good shot because I don’t want spend another”.

BUNNY-AND-BETTIE-JUNGLE

JK: One of the things that we might wonder about this book is what’s special about another Bettie Page book? What’s special about it is the number of photographs, especially on the same photo shoot. You said earlier that you couldn’t take a bad angle on Bettie, but the angles really are different. In some of them, she looks like she has a little bit of a belly. In others, you can see her ribs. You really do get a sense of intimacy, as if you’re watching a whole Bettie Page photo shoot – an interesting sense of what it would be like to just gawk.

PM: I’m so glad you picked that up because we tried to create movement in the layout. I don’t see myself as much as a writer as a cultural historian because I think it captures different aspects of what I do, and much of what I do is doing a lot of picture editing, conceptualizing, trying to do things that haven’t been done before, trying to go beyond the obvious.

JK: So this is the second book of Bunny Yeager photographer that you’ve done. Could you talk about how you approached her and built a relationship with her.

PM: It seemed easy from the fact that I looked her up a number of times when I was living in New York and couldn’t believe that she was listed, her address and her phone number. What is this? You’re in the phone book? I found that very strange. I was quite amazed she had a landline and kept her office going just as it had been in the 50s or the 60s.

I remember looking at the beach in Miami one day thinking I really want a cool Miami project to work on. What on earth is happening with Bunny Yeager? I cannot believe she is a couple minutes down the road!

Bunny ran rings around me. Basically, she was not giving up this material easily. A large portion of it [the photographs] had never been scanned. If it wasn’t for the hard work of a digital studio who had started working with her and getting material out of her before—but for the most part we started from scratch scanning and getting this stuff out. It was a historic moment.

Of course, you can imagine how tough it was to spend hours pouring over images of Bettie Page – ogling! So it was tough because there’s only so many pages in a book, and every one of her is just great and I really did try to create that sense of movement.

BETTIE-IN-TREE

JK: I know Bunny Yeager had a very long career and she published a lot of books before you came into her life, and I know that her career was modest at the point when you met her… I think you’re a hell of curator, and a wonderful cultural historian. The size of these books gives the photos their due. Don’t just go online and look at a few photos. These books are gorgeous, and the way that you put the books together, it’s just a wonderful reading a visual experience.

PM: Thank you so much. Coming from you who is so informed about these things, and who’s had the remarkable experience of interviewing her and following her career, I’m very touched.

*John King is the host of The Drunken Odyssey: A Podcast About the Writing Life. His journalism has appeared in Bachelor Pad Magazine, and his creative writing has appeared in Gargoyle, Palooka, The Newer York, Turnrow, and others. He holds a PhD in English from Purdue University, and an MFA in creative writing from New York University. He lives in Orlando, Florida.

**The above is an excerpt from a transcribed audio podcast and has been edited for brevity. 

***Bettie Page: Queen of Curves is available at Exclusive BooksRizzoli and Amazon.
****Images © Bunny Yeager, “Bettie Page: Queen of Curves”, Rizzoli NYC. 
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