Bunny Yea­ger show: Ex­plo­ration of racism in beauty

Miami Herald - - OPINION - BY SARAHJANE BLUM, co-owner of Grape­fruit Moon Gallery Sarahjane Blum is co-owner of Grape­fruit Moon Gallery and the pres­i­dent of the Bunny Yea­ger Archive.

Along with the New Year, Jan­uary is known as the Awards Sea­son, and for the past few years, this has meant con­ver­sa­tions and con­tro­ver­sies about racial dis­par­i­ties in whose art we take se­ri­ously and who we de­cide to cel­e­brate.

These con­ver­sa­tions about rep­re­sen­ta­tion are very cur­rent, but they have a long his­tory. An on­go­ing pho­tog­ra­phy at the Cop­per Door Bed and Break­fast in Over­town, fea­tur­ing the work of pin up pho­tog­ra­pher Bunny Yea­ger with mod­els of color, ex­plores one long-over­looked el­e­ment of his­tory.

Bunny Yea­ger has been likened to an ad for Mi­ami. Through her pin up pho­to­graphs of smil­ing bikini beauties like Bet­tie Page, shot on pris­tine beaches, at glam­orous man­sions or pool­side at op­u­lent ho­tels, she showed a world of youth, beauty, and sun­shine.

Her hey­day — which spanned from the mid 1950s to the late 1960s — co­in­cided with the height of Florida’s al­lure. Look­ing at her work to­day, we see the his­tory of the city cap­tured in all its rat pack glory. But while Yea­ger’s work has long been cel­e­brated for it’s abil­ity to evoke the pic­ture post­card of mid-cen­tury Mi­ami Beach, her work with mod­els of color has only re­cently be­gun to be ex­am­ined.

The ear­li­est pho­tos in the ex­hi­bi­tion date to the 1950s and high­lights in­clude a never-be­fore-seen shot of an AfricanAme­r­i­can beauty queen with a tro­phy declar­ing her Miss Bronzevill­e, 1958. The model is named Marie Adams, and the im­age show­cases Adams’s beauty and Yea­ger’s clear in­tent to stand in op­po­si­tion to racist 1950s cul­ture. Mi­ami beaches had not been in­te­grated when Yea­ger shot this im­age, so Yea­ger ac­com­pa­nied Adams to Vir­ginia Key, the his­toric black beach which opened in 1945 af­ter seven black swim­mers held a “wade in” at Haulover Beach protest­ing the racially ex­clu­sion­ary poli­cies of Mi­ami’s ocean­front parks. Yea­ger’s choice to cel­e­brate the beauty of a black woman joy­fully claim­ing space on a site that was hard won by the African Amer­i­can com­mu­nity was an in­her­ently po­lit­i­cal act, though the photo it­self can also read as a straight­for­ward glam­our shot.

Adams was not the only black model Yea­ger pho­tographed in the 1950s. When Cab Call­away brought his Cot­ton Club Re­vue to Mi­ami Beach in the win­ter of 1957, Yea­ger pho­tographed one of the fea­tured dancers, La Raine

Meeres, in an ex­tended ses­sion where Meeres posed for Yea­ger lean­ing against a high-end sports car, sun­ning pool­side at an area ho­tel, and even­tu­ally fully nude.

Com­ment­ing on these im­ages, the Mi­ami Her­ald pho­to­jour­nal­ist Carl Juste de­scribed the pho­tos as a tes­ta­ment of Yea­ger’s un­der­stand­ing, em­pa­thy, and com­mit­ment to equal­ity. At a Mi­ami Arts Week panel held at the Cop­per Door, he re­marked “How do you make some­one feel com­fort­able in front of a cam­era when they’re not even com­fort­able at their job? When they’re not even com­fort­able walk­ing down the street… The naked­ness in a pho­to­graph is not about the bar­ing of skin, it’s about the bar­ing of self…it’s a de­pic­tion of trust.”

Much like the Marie Adams shoot, the con­text of Mi­ami at the time this shoot was taken en­riches the power of these im­ages. Night­clubs across the coun­try, and in Mi­ami in par­tic­u­lar were highly con­tested sites in the fight for de­seg­re­ga­tion. In 1955, Lena Horne broke her con­tract to per­form for a week at the Mi­ami Beach Copa City, mak­ing na­tional head­lines cit­ing Jim Crow laws in Mi­ami Beach and musing “hell, some­day they’ll learn.” The shots of Meers, of­ten taken from a low an­gle, show her as a tow­er­ing, mag­netic, pow­er­ful pres­ence in a city which was still deeply hos­tile to her pres­ence.

Pin up pho­tog­ra­phy can of­ten be con­sid­ered silly, friv­o­lous, and even tawdry. Yea­ger, at dif­fer­ent points in her ca­reer, de­lighted in ex­plor­ing all of these as­pects of her craft. But her work with mod­els of color is deeply se­ri­ous, and at times, even rev­er­ent. Un­for­tu­nately, it was also ex­ceed­ingly hard to sell so much of it has re­mained un­seen un­til re­cently.

Most girlie mag­a­zine were hes­i­tant to show­case black mod­els. Even Play­boy, which mar­keted it it­self as a for­ward-think­ing men’s mag­a­zine, wouldn’t fea­ture a black cen­ter­fold un­til Jen­nifer Jackson in 1965.

Yea­ger never ex­plic­itly ad­dressed the trans­gres­sive na­ture of her work with black mod­els, but the work is a pow­er­ful part of her his­tory and the his­tory of Mi­ami’s legacy of racism. It’s long over­due to look at what Bunny Yea­ger’s choices with hers say about this pi­o­neer­ing artist, and the Mi­ami in which she lived, and to con­sider why ques­tions of rep­re­sen­ta­tion re­main so con­tentious to­day.

Glam­our Shots: “Bunny Yea­ger from Over­town to Ocho Rios” is on dis­play at the Cop­per Door B & B at 439 NW Fourth Ave. un­til Feb.1.

Through her en­tire pro­fes­sional ca­reer, Yea­ger showed an in­ter­est in ex­plor­ing the glam­our and beauty of mod­els who were over­looked by other main­stream pin-up and glam­our pho­tog­ra­phers. From her Vir­ginia Key pho­to­shoot with

Bunny Yea­ger Archive.

“Bunny Yea­ger from Over­town to Ocho Rios” is on dis­play through Jan­uary at the Cop­per Door B & B in Mi­ami.

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