The Copper Door Bed & Breakfast has had a photo exhibit that focuses on Bunny Yeager's work with African American and Caribbean models of color. Opening in the summer of 2019, the exhibit will run until February 1, 2020.
For the occasion, Grapefruit Moon Gallery co-owner and president of the Bunny Yeager Archive Sarahjane Blum wrote the following op-ed for the Miami Herald, which was originally published on January 13, 2020.
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 exhibition 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 its 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 African-American 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 magazines 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 until February 1st, 2020.
Sarahjane Blum is co-owner of Grapefruit Moon Gallery and President of the Bunny Yeager Archive.