Bettie Page and Bunny Yeager’s sultriest shots up for sale

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Linnea Eleanor “Bunny” Yeager knew how to look great on camera — and how to make other women look beautiful, too.

Yeager started her career as a model and was the Cheesecake Queen of 1951, before getting behind the camera to shoot Bettie Page and other leggy models in the 1950s and ’60s, elevating pinup pics to works of art.

“Bunny understood what made a good photo shoot work, because she was a model, as well as a modeling and photography teacher. And Bettie showed up, ready to work, bringing a creativity and exuberance with her posing and facial expression,” said 50-year-old Richard Foster, the author of the “The Real Bettie Page.”

“They were both plucky, smart, independent-minded women in a time when the world didn’t offer as many opportunities for them, and I think they recognized similar qualities in each other.”

On Saturday, Mid-Hudson Auction Galleries, located in New Windsor, NY, will auction off a portion of the late pinup-turned-photographer Bunny Yeager’s vast archives, among them some of the most famous shots of the notorious Bettie Page.

The auction is the fifth sale of Yeager’s work since January, and it will include unpublished pictures and negatives of midcentury beauties, spanning thousands of items across 380 lots.

It’s a treasure trove that showcases Yeager and Page’s celebrated working relationship, which yielded some of the most iconic images of the latter. Their collaborations, which started in 1954, allowed Page to break free from bondage shoots for fetish magazines. Working with Yeager, who died in 2014 at age 85 of congestive heart failure, Page was captured in more artistic settings away from the male gaze.

“She was very tasteful and [her models] appreciated that,” said Mid-Hudson Auction Galleries’ owner, principal auctioneer and appraiser Joanne Grant, 80. “Bettie Page … was looking for a new avenue, and she certainly did find it with Bunny Yeager. It was a completely different milieu.”

That’s not to say Page, who died at age 85 in 2008 following a heart attack, always stayed clothed.

In one of their first and most famous sessions, Page wears nothing more than a Santa hat, sewn by Yeager, and kneels next to a Christmas tree while winking and dressing it with ornaments. Hugh Hefner paid $100 for the image ($993 today) and published it in the January 1955 Playboy centerfold.

A print of that photo is available for sale in a pack of 10 assorted images (estimated value between $60 and $100), and an unpublished outtake from that shoot, in which Page looks away from the camera, is estimated to fetch between $100 and $150.

Other images were wilder. Yeager, who was one of the first glamour photographers to snap her models in natural light, shot Page wearing a leopard-print outfit and posing with cheetahs at the since-shuttered Africa U.S.A. animal park in Boca Raton, Florida. Behind-the-scenes self-portraits of the two, and two reclining cheetahs, are estimated to sell for $200 to $300.

Mutual inspiration defined the two women’s working relationship.

“Bettie Page was Bunny Yeager’s ultimate muse,” said Foster, whose book was adapted into the 2006 film “The Notorious Bettie Page,” starring Gretchen Mol in the title role and Sarah Paulson as Yeager.

“Bunny told me that Bettie was ‘the best pinup-glamour model that ever lived,’ [and said] ‘She was like a drawing — a perfect woman: unreal, fun, fantasy. Bettie always portrayed a woman that hinted she would be lots of fun to be with, someone who would never have a headache or a bad mood. Sure, she’d pout . . . but you always knew she was playing with you.’ ”

Page quit modeling in 1957 and vanished at the height of her fame, two years after a Senate investigation into pornography and the controversy it brought. But, decades later, she became a beloved figure in certain circles. Her pinup popularity — whose foundation lies in Yeager’s legacy — remains.

“There is an entirely new generation of millennial and Gen Z women who see Bettie Page as an example of female sexuality and power, not to mention the wide and devoted following of people who appreciate her as a fashion and beauty icon, and counterculture symbol,” said Foster.

Diane Arbus once referred to Yeager as “the world’s greatest pinup photographer,” and Yeager’s models — although wearing close to nothing or nothing at all — showed an air of innocence.

Beyond landing Page on the pages of Playboy, Yeager also discovered Lisa Winters, the magazine’s first Playmate of the Year, at a bus stop in 1956. Hundreds of magazines showcase her work, and she published more than 25 books.

In the 1970s, when men’s magazines started demanding more explicit imagery, Yeager stopped shooting nudes, calling the new style “kind of smutty,” according to the Washington Post.

After falling into obscurity, her work became newly appreciated in the final years of her life, with a 2010 exhibit of her self-portraits at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania’s Andy Warhol Museum and a 2013 retrospective at the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale.

In an interview, she once revealed the secret to her success.

“It’s easier for a woman,” she said, “to ask a girl to take off her clothes.”

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