Bunny Yeager was a pinup model and photographer who appeared on TV and in exploitation films, while creating pinups and “art” nudes for Playboy, coffee-table books, and how-to publications. She is currently experiencing a revival as part of a subcultural vogue for 1950s and 1960s Americana. In her images she was often both subject and photographer, and her self-reflexive pictures engage with issues of authorship, control, and the sexualized gaze. This text examines Yeager's portraiture, her instructive writing, her representation in the film Bunny Yeager's Nude Camera (1963), and the way she positioned herself when discussing her work, to demonstrate how she embodied a mode of professional and sexual agency that engaged with broader, progressive ideas pertaining to women's labor and identity circulating in 1960s America as part of feminism's second wave.
In her article on a 2015 exhibition of pinup images by the photographer Bunny Yeager at Gavlak Gallery, Los Angeles, Huffington Post arts writer Priscilla Frank claims, “If it wasn't already abundantly obvious, Yeager was a feminist before the term was part of the cultural conversation.”1 She then quotes from another Huffington Post story from three years before, an interview with Yeager when she was still alive:
I always hated it when people said, “You can do this as good as a man,” or “Why don't you do it like the men do it?” They kept bothering me. I wasn't interested in competing with male photographers, or doing anything that had to do with them, because I wanted to be original and have my own feelings and abilities, to put forth my ideas and execute them into photo stories. I wanted to do what I wanted to do, not what men had done.”2
Frank concludes by declaring: “All hail the bold and beautiful Bunny, who slyly snuck feminist agency into the most unlikely of spaces—men's magazines. As an artist, her contributions are both ahead of their time and unabashedly delectable.”3
Representations of female sexuality frequently prompt enthusiastic debate surrounding their potential for objectification and agency. This was recently demonstrated in the furore surrounding a nude selfie taken and shared on Instagram by the reality star, social media celebrity, and businesswoman Kim Kardashian. The subsequent debate regarding whether this provocative self-portrait “empowered” Kardashian (as she herself claimed in a statement posted on her website on International Woman's Day) or degraded her, formed one of the most recent (but certainly not the final) installments in an ongoing dialogue that polices and defends women's bodies, sexualities, and public activities.
For this and other reasons Frank's claims regarding Yeager's ideological intent behind her photographs and practice are obviously contentious. To my knowledge, Yeager never directly identified as a feminist. Nevertheless Frank's observation provides a valuable means of opening up further debate surrounding the potential for agency for female subjects who create and/or appear in sexualized female representations and of examining, in a more substantive sense, particular facets of Yeager's celebrity, practices, and work.
For those who have missed the relatively recent popular resurgence of Yeager's work as part of a subcultural vogue for 1950s and 1960s Americana, she was a pinup model and an accomplished professional photographer of pinup and glamour photography and photo stories, most commonly remembered for her playful work with the iconic pinup and fetish model Bettie Page. Often working with just a Rolleiflex camera with a built-in timer, a tripod, and a mirror, Yeager captured a diverse array of outdoor, indoor, and studio-based pinups, portraits, and “art” nudes in which she was the cheesecake subject as well as the photographer. From these images she produced coffee-table “art” books and pulp booklets, and, as she stated in her 1964 book How I Photograph Myself, she used these images to continually improve her technique, to instruct others, and to bolster her back catalogue of sellable pinup images.4 The 100- to 150-page, digest-size pulp booklets were printed on low-quality paper with color front covers, while the larger, hardback “art” books contained minimal text alongside large, glossy, black-and-white images. Both publication formats were sold as “how-to” guides but also featured titillating, borderline content such as nude figure studies, glamour photography, and cheesecake poses, which could be appreciated by readers with no interest in gaining or perfecting their photographic skills.
Yeager's notoriety, and her photographs, are noteworthy in part because of the period of significant change in which she worked. In terms of the industrial context, it was a time of significant technological developments. These developments not only brought about the increased availability and affordability of 35mm and instamatic cameras, which provided Yeager with a market to whom she could sell her expertise, but also led to a market saturated with photographic practitioners, in which Yeager sorely needed to differentiate herself.
In 1953, Roy Pinney of U.S Camera magazine labeled Yeager “the world's prettiest photographer.” This epithet was subsequently capitalized upon in promotional materials for her films, in the editor's foreword to her 1958 pulp publication Photographing the Female Figure, on the back endpaper of her 1965 book 100 Girls: New Concepts in Glamour Photography, and on the back cover of her 1964 book How I Photograph Nudes.5 Yeager's marketing as a recognizable “celebrity” photographer and the marketing of her books and images repeatedly emphasized her femininity as well as her skill. This was clearly a successful promotional and demarcation strategy for Yeager and her work, yet that point of difference, and her experience of being different, could also explain why Yeager later expressed a frustrated determination to be “as good as a man”—why she might have been disinterested in competing with her male counterparts and wanted to “do what [she] wanted to do, not what men had done.”
In terms of sociohistorical context, Yeager and her work came to cultural prominence in an era of increasing permissiveness and significant change for Western women. Her images of assertive, sexualized feminine performativity were circulating only a couple of years after Alfred Kinsey's explosive 1953 study Sexual Behaviour in the Human Female uncovered shocking, perception-changing truths about women and their libidos (for instance, that they had one!) and around the same time that The Feminine Mystique emerged. According to the author Betty Friedan, women were being coerced, as part of a larger postwar ideological retrenchment of traditional gender roles, out of the workplace and back into the home, and their dissatisfaction “burst like a boil” in 1960s popular American media. According to this narrative, this discontent was the fuel for a second wave of Western feminism that was then gathering pace.
Bearing this context in mind, this article considers Yeager's self-portraiture, her instructive writing on photography (from four of her books published between 1958 and 1965), and one of the two films in which she starred, and which featured her name in their titles, to demonstrate the ways in which her persona was frequently presented as agent and expert as well as desirable.6
I want to examine how Yeager's celebrity, built on professional competence and iterated across a range of texts—in the manner of what Richard Dyer terms a “total star text,” whereby the star or celebrity is represented and made available across a range of media which cumulatively forms a complete star or celebrity image—made it possible for Yeager to exhibit agent behaviors and viably occupy traditionally male-dominated domains.7 This argument will demonstrate how, through her work and the way she positioned herself when discussing that work, Yeager embodied and made glamorous a mode of professional and sexual agency that engaged with broader, progressive ideas pertaining to women's labor, identity, and rights that were circulating as part of the burgeoning second wave of the feminist movement.
There appear to be a number of reasons for Frank's claim that Yeager “was a feminist before the term was part of the cultural conversation.” Foremost was her desire for parity with her male counterparts, combined with her frustration at the industry's preoccupation with her gender as exemplified by her comment, “I always hated it when people said, ‘You can do this as good as a man’ or ‘Why don't you do it like the men do it?’” Second, Yeager had a commendable sense of entitlement to personal and professional fulfillment: “I wanted to be original and have my own feelings and abilities, to put forth my ideas and execute them.” Frank even suggests a subversive intent, with Yeager “slyly” sneaking her “feminist agency” into that bastion of misogyny and male privilege, “men's magazines.” This is interesting, but an oversimplification. The fact that Yeager's photographs appeared in a number of such magazines does make her a rarity. Equally to enter this industry was probably a “bold” move, but these facts alone do not make Yeager “feminist.” Nor does it mean that she “slyly snuck feminist agency” into the photographs she managed to place in these magazines.
It is also tempting to ascribe to Yeager considerable creative and authorial control, not only because she shot, developed, and made herself the subject of her photographs, but also because she wrote much of the accompanying copy for her books. However, we must also be cautious here, as editors and in-house graphic teams rather than authors typically dictate overarching selection and layout processes. A statement in Yeager's 1965 book 100 Girls where she notes how grateful she is for the opportunity to have input into the layout and design of the book reveals the usual limits of authorial jurisdiction by hinting at the lack of editorial control that she had had over previous books.8
That said, Yeager's comments suggest a determination to succeed in a male-dominated profession and a desire for her work to be considered on its own merits, as that of a professional photographer rather than a professional female photographer. Equally, however problematic one may find the erotic subjects of Yeager's photographs, her writings and many of her images demonstrate a clear awareness of (if not a direct engagement with) issues raised by her gender and her subjectivity.
In terms of her competency, experience, and esteem within the photographic industry, Yeager was sought after by models and clients and consistently worked for prominent popular publications such as Playboy, Esquire, and Cosmopolitan. She lectured and wrote on photography, helped to produce and appeared in a handful of low-budget films, and was also a visible public figure within broader 1960s popular culture, for instance appearing as a photographic expert on the TV shows The Johnny Carson Show and What's My Line?
Her photographic work was nuanced, complex, and competent, certainly within its generic field. She was a proficient photographer and model, aware of the requirements of the pinup form and able to consistently deliver to clients images that met these requirements. While Yeager was an active part of an industry that reinforced normative notions of heterosexual female sexuality, her approach to self-portraiture, particularly her use of eyeline matching, mise-en-scène, and performance, demonstrates that not all pinups are created equal. Indeed, it may be possible to find agency in what may seem initially the most unlikely of photographic genres; to have one's cheesecake and eat it.
Using the example of Yeager and the way she embodies or performs assertiveness and authority, and exploring the implications of her use of intra-diegetic looks in four of her self-portraits, I want to consider the politics that inform the representation of female sexual agency using the art historian Maria Elena Buszek's claim regarding the pinup and its ability to represent: “Its beautiful/beautified subjects as not only self-aware sexual beings, but beings whose sexual identities can be self-constructed, self-controlled, and changing, the pin-up holds the potential to represent and mark as desirable the range of female sexualities possible between an established societal or moral binary.”9 Yeager's work may not have been explicitly political, but a small cache of her self-portraits problematize the established dichotomies of male and female, active and passive, subject and object, demonstrating Yeager's awareness of the mechanisms in operation and stakes involved in the observer-observed dynamic, and of her anticipated position as a woman within that dynamic.
While female subjects are frequently discussed as connoting “to-be-looked-at-ness,” the “surveyed” rather than the “surveyor,” Yeager problematizes this notion, as the established, recognizable aspects of her celebrity persona, expertise, investment, and experience afforded her the right to look and to speak, to hold power.10 Her self-portraits often play with pinup conventions in a complex, reflexive manner. When she appears alongside other subjects, her use of intradiegetic looks reinforces her authority within the image, while her writing works in tandem with these images to repeatedly and explicitly invoke and assert the archetypal “male” role of the “expert.”
The cover image for her 1964 book How I Photograph Myself is one of several Yeager self-portraits that utilize pinup conventions such as scanty costuming and contrived, “awarish” (Buszek's word, meaning sexually self-aware and self-confident) posing or performance, and that feature a second visible camera within the mise-en-scène (figure 1).11 Incorporating this apparatus along with other equipment such as lights, light meters, flash slaves, and mirrors into the photographic scenario serves several functions within the image's “narrative.” The rules of “good” photographic practice normally dictate that the technical means through which photographs are produced be concealed, but instead Yeager plays self-reflexively with the form, drawing deliberate attention to the means of production and the complex, considered processes involved in producing a commercial photograph, presumably here to indulge the reader's desire for instruction and/or revelation and again to assert her expertise.
Yeager's positioning within this image is also significant. In theoretical writings on film and photography, the camera is often discussed as signifying the eye, and the movement or view of the lens as a metonym for the act of looking. And looking, and having the right to look, is commonly linked to power.12 By featuring a camera within the mise-en-scène, Yeager draws attention to the system of looks and subsequent identifications that photographs and the photographic process can invoke. By turning the photographed camera toward the photographing camera (so that in effect the camera “looks” back at the camera that “looks” at it) Yeager disrupts the discrete photographic tableau typical of pinup imagery. In terms of implication, the iconographic arrangement suggests to the viewer, an unobserved observer, that their privileged, nonreciprocal gaze (and I knowingly use this term here to emphasize the implication of power and control) somehow appears to be being reciprocated and that they have thus become a visible, implicated, or susceptible participant in Yeager's photographic scenario. Victor Burgin notes: “We may identify four basic types of look in the photograph: the look of the camera as it photographs the ‘pro-photographic’ event; the look of the viewer as he or she looks at the photograph; the ‘intra-diegetic’ looks exchanged between people (actors) depicted in the photograph (and/or looks for actors towards objects); and the look the actor may direct towards the camera.”13 This is certainly true, and while context is crucial in terms of making meaning, one must also consider the various compositional elements that may reflect or respond to the broader context and help frame or direct the audience's understanding of these four looks.14 Most importantly the last look, the look the actor may direct toward the camera, can serve a number of functions. In his article “Don't Look Now: The Instabilities of the Male Pin-Up,” Richard Dyer considers the politics of looking when a pinup is male:
It is not a question of whether or not the model looks at his spectator(s), but how he does or does not. In the case of not looking, where the female model typically averts her eyes, expressing modesty, patience and a lack of interest in anything else, the male model looks either off or up. In the case of the former, his look suggests an interest in something else that the viewer cannot see—it certainly doesn't suggest any interest in the viewer. Indeed it barely acknowledges the viewer, whereas the woman's averted eyes do just that—they are averted from the viewer. In the cases where the model is looking up, this always suggests a spirituality: he might be there for his face and body to be gazed at, but his mind is on higher things, and it is this upward striving that is most supposed to please.15
Returning to the Yeager example, figure 1 is a carefully staged studio shot whose relatively few compositional elements belie the image's complex connotations. Yeager employs a relatively limited color palette: blue backdrop and stool; silver camera, tripod, mules, and belt; platinum-blond hair; tanned white skin; and vivid red leotard, camera bellows, and ribbon with which she supposedly operates the camera shutter. As well as the erotic connotations attached to the color red, Yeager is color matching here. Her red and silver outfit echoes the red and chrome camera to her right, linking her visually with these objects in the composition. She adopts a conventional pinup pose (chest out, arched back, in profile to accentuate the shape of her bust, waist, and rear) and a typical pinup gaze (direct to the camera, implying a deliberate performance intended for the viewer). But by looking out toward the audience, rather than away from us and at the camera prominently featured within the shot, Yeager places further emphasis upon this second visible camera's figurative (rather than practical) function. Its prominent presence in the image is vital. It is the tool of Yeager's trade, and using her arched foot and pointed toe—both staple pinup poses—she pulls the ribbon attached to this second camera's shutter, presumably closing that shutter and capturing a picture. As such there is an implication here that our subject is mediating our visual access to her.
As a common pejorative for pinup imagery, the term “leg art” carries allusions to a (presumed male) sexual fascination with female body parts, and (through use of the noun art) to the politics of taste and respectability at the heart of the rejection or acceptance of such imagery. Discussing the politics of distinction attached to camera clubs and photography magazines, John Pultz notes, “Female nudes abounded in camera magazines, where ‘art’ was invoked to justify disrobing the female model.” He continues, noting that as early as the 1930s and 1940s, “Respectable photography magazines (not those that existed only as a means of presenting pornography) suggested ‘girls’ as appropriate subjects for amateur photography with articles such as ‘Posing the Girlfriend’ and ‘Snapshots of Girls.’”16 In How I Photograph Myself and her other books, booklets, and films in which she appears, Yeager repeatedly legitimates her images as “art” by pitching the text or commentary toward those camera club audiences—essentially amateurs keen to learn from her practical expertise. In figure 1, she complicates the image's instructive and titillating potential, not just presenting her leg as a provocative element within the image, but playfully suggesting its importance to the production of the image itself. Rather than a passive assemblage of desirable and pliant body parts, Yeager presents her body as active, assertive, and integral to the production process. Without her skill, artistry, and physical intervention, there would be no image.
In figure 2, Yeager poses behind a large-format bellows camera, wearing heels and a blouse. The device, its tripod, and its hood obscure the central portion of her body. In the absence of clothing on her legs, the camera hood resembles a skirt. In line with pinup conventions, Yeager teases her reader, coquettishly raising this “skirt,” revealing her legs but concealing her upper thighs and a portion of her chest. As is typical of cheesecake imagery, Yeager gazes directly at the reader with a friendly smile rather than an overtly sexual, predatory, or desiring expression. Here, though, the implication of submissiveness or passivity is tempered by two means. Her legs, placed apart, almost in line with two of the tripod's legs and shot front on, are in a stance that suggests assertiveness and runs contrary to her own instructions that female pinup subjects should be shot at an angle to make the model appear more attractively proportioned.17 Second, the camera that Yeager stands behind points directly toward the reader, again suggesting a reciprocal gaze, and blurring the line between observer and observed. Through this in-shot camera there is potential to literally as well as metaphorically see Yeager's point of view. The camera, an objective and simultaneously scrutinizing apparatus with the power to misrepresent, distort, or mock, is presented as an appropriate proxy for Yeager's critical gaze. Yeager may have chosen to present herself within her images as a sexualized subject, but as a professional practitioner she is inured within the language of photography and has employed a range of techniques and signifiers that also attribute considerable levels of agency, analysis, and examination to her photographic depictions.
In other images Yeager poses alongside her large-format camera together with female models who are, to an extent, objects within the photographic frame and serve to demonstrate Yeager's authority and expertise. They highlight the difference—namely, her skills—between her and her fellow models. In one exterior shot, Yeager poses in a bathing suit alongside three attractive, young, white women. While the other models’ costumes are of a tonal range similar to the sand and grasses against which they are posed (dark brown, cream, olive green), Yeager's bathing suit is a vibrant red. The other subjects kneel on beach towels while Yeager stands. In contrast to the other models, who are posed with their hands in their laps or at their sides, Yeager holds the camera's plate cover or a dark slide in her right hand and rests her left elbow on her camera. She raises the index finger of her left hand in an instructive gesture, presumably to indicate to the models to hold their poses. Yeager's use of color, her composition of subjects within the frame, and her hand gesture all work to indicate that she dominates this scenario.
To further emphasize this point, Yeager again tampers with the dynamic of various looks operating within the image and directed at the audience. The subjects’ poses, their apparently direct, smiling gazes toward the viewer, Yeager's proximity to her camera, and the fact she holds a dark slide in her right hand all suggest that the image the viewer sees is the image as captured by Yeager. This, however, is misdirection. The camera in the image points the wrong way, to the right of the frame rather than directly at the reader. The perspective we see could never be the perspective offered by that particular lens, even if Yeager had been using a mirror (a tool she frequently employed to check her poses while shooting herself, and as a prop in her images to suggest self-reflexivity and the interplay of looks). By using this second camera within the image, Yeager purports to give behind-the-scenes access to the shoot itself. The relaxed smiles and postures of the subjects suggest a convivial scenario and agreeable model-photographer relationships, drawing the reader's attention to Yeager's photographic process, her competency as a practitioner, and her control over the shoot situation.
In another instance, Yeager appears in a studio shot, in a figure-hugging sweater, briefs, and sandals (figure 3). In the hand closest to the reader she purposefully brandishes either a flash slave or an exposure meter. In the other she cradles a Rolleiflex to her hip. To her right is a young, white female with pinned, tumbling curls, draped in gold fabric and seated on a Grecian column. The model's hairstyle, the drapery, and the column evoke the classical nude, with its artistic associations, and a smiling Yeager here reveals the tools with which a photographer might achieve a similarly artistic representation. In terms of emphasizing her authority further and marking herself as our point of identification, Yeager adopts a self-assured stance and an approachable smile as she looks directly at the viewer. Her model's face is turned from the camera, rendering her anonymous and contextual.
The repeated appearance of photographic apparatus and Yeager's preoccupation with female subjectivity in her self-portraiture brings to mind Abigail Solomon-Godeau's 1986 study of carte de visite photographs made between 1856 and 1865 of Napoleon III of France's mistress, the Countess de Castiglione. In several of these images the Countess provocatively gazes back at the camera in an awarish manner, and in one particular image she holds a photographic mount to her face, framing an eye that stares straight back into the camera's lens. Just as Yeager makes use of cameras as props within her self-portraits, the countess's photographic mount frames her eye, focusing the reader's attention directly on the subject's gaze and the implication of that gaze within the image.
Using the Countess's portraits, Solomon-Godeau explores some of the complexities inherent in these visual representations of female sexual agency, public femininity, and feminine self-representation, asking whose desire these images satisfy.18 She acknowledges the complexities of the sexualized female performance presented by the Countess, recognizing that to an extent she is “the architect of her own representations” and that she “looks directly into the lens of the camera, thus meeting the gaze of the spectator … depart[ing] so emphatically from traditional modes of pornography.19 But she overlooks the potentially agent implications linked to the assertive, awarish, and self-reflexive mode of address the Countess adopts, taking up a line of argument commonly applied to pinup and other sexualized female representations at large, that the Countess's images form a “fetishistic photographic project” where she and her desire are presumed to exist only for the pleasure of (particularly male) others.20 Furthermore, she takes the dispiritingly determinist line that these images “are the personal expression of an individual woman's investment in her image—in herself as image…. This individual act of expression is underwritten by conventions that make her less an author than a scribe,” and that
the masks, the disguises, the postures, the poses, the ball gowns, the display of the body—what is the countess but a tabula rasa on whom is reflected a predetermined and delimited range of representations? And of what does her subjectivity consist if not her total absorption of them, her obedience to a scopic regime which inevitably undercuts her pretended authority as orchestrator of the look?21
But in such an apparently inevitable and deterministic arrangement, how could the female subject occupy any space other than that of the oppressed? The problematic implication of Solomon-Godeau's analysis is that there is little to no opportunity for the Countess to transcend the restrictions that her gender places her under, in order that she might articulate an agent, active, constructive, and critical sexualized identity.
The range of poses, situations, and guises displayed in How I Photograph Myself bear a resemblance to the artist Cindy Sherman's chameleonic, performative approach and autonomous photographic practice. The work likewise encompasses a diverse range of approaches, scenarios, and performed personae; Yeager makes and remakes herself for the camera through changes in costume, hair color, pose, and locale, very much in line with the notion of a self-constructed identity.22 While Yeager and Sherman occupy different sociohistorical production and reception contexts, this comparison nevertheless opens up further useful avenues of investigation with regard to Yeager's persona, labor, and photography, and the broader association of female sexualized performance with agency.
As an artist Sherman is renowned for her photographic self-portraiture in which she utilizes costuming, makeup, props, performance, and setting to “become” a diverse array of female archetypes recognizable from Western popular culture. As part of this masquerade, she has adopted the sexualized and occasionally passive personae often associated with pinup and soft-core imagery, but in line with Roland Barthes's notion of the text as “a tissue of quotations,” she casts a critical eye over these familiar iconographic elements and stereotypes, imbuing them with new meanings and playing with the complex network of issues surrounding the construction of female subjectivity, sexuality, performance, and, most importantly, identity.23
Sherman's approach is not surprising given the focus within various strands of second-wave feminism on issues of identity, sexuality, and reproduction, as well as women's roles within the family, the public sphere, and the workplace, and broader social and constitutional inequalities. It is equally unsurprising that she and her Untitled Film Stills (1977–80), a series of self-portraits featuring a range of ambiguous, challenging, frequently sexualized feminine stereotypes, achieved celebrity and acclaim in the late 1970s and early 1980s, as the “sex wars” raged between sex-positive and anti-porn feminists, and both factions constructed new and adapted existing narratives of female sexuality and subjectivity.
The Untitled Film Stills provoke a sense of nostalgia. As Laura Mulvey observes, they “seem to refer to the fifties, to the New Wave, to Neo-realism, to Hitchcock, or to Hollywood B pictures.”24 But they are not hollow reconstructions of the past; Sherman's images speak of feminist debates surrounding gender, identity, and subjectivity that were playing out at the time she produced them. According to Mulvey, “Sherman twists nostalgia to suggest its dependence on constructing images and representations that conceal more than they record.” Furthermore, they “have the Barthesian quality of ‘fifties-ness’: that American collective fantasy of the fifties as the time of everyone's youth in a white and mainly middle America setting, in the last moment of calm before the storms of Vietnam, civil rights, and finally feminism.”25
Yeager appears to be the epitome of suburbanized, white, glamorous femininity that repeatedly appears in Sherman's Untitled Film Stills, and she and her pinups came to cultural prominence during that romanticized, supposedly politically naive moment to which the Untitled Film Stills refer. But the extent to which this moment was actually politically naive is moot. As Yeager worked, emergent discourses around sexual liberation in the arts advocated women's increased public visibility and freedom of sexual expression. Yeager's representations may or may not have gone on to be co-opted by conservative parties or agencies, but this does not necessarily mean that Yeager's practice or the images she produced lacked progressive intent or the potential for progressive interpretation. As a commercial photographer rather than an artist, Yeager may also not have produced or claimed to produce images informed as Sherman's were by the complexity and breadth of philosophical or political debate surrounding women's liberation, sexuality, and identity, but her work and writings nevertheless demonstrate a self-reflexive awareness of the power dynamics within photography and her particular chosen genre. Equally in her writings and interviews, Yeager advocated professional and personal agency, and many of her self-portraits reflect that sense of and desire for control over her own body, image, and labor.
Considering Yeager and her work in comparison to Sherman raises issues not only of performance and the potential for sexual agency, but also of cultural capital, critical reception and contexts, and the formation of canons. Fundamental differences between Sherman's and Yeager's oeuvres are apparent in their intended audiences, the genres to which their work belongs, and way they (and others) refer to themselves as practitioners.
Considering reception and classification, Sherman's work is generally perceived as legitimate art. As Mulvey observes, Sherman is “not a photographer but an artist who uses photography.”26 All along her work has been intended for a postmodern audience that is distanced from the historical context to which her representations refer, and educated or at least experienced enough to recognize the cultural signifiers used and Sherman's inherent ironic critique of them. Alternatively, Yeager was a commercial practitioner working on the fringes of the 1950s and 1960s sex industry. Her work openly walked the line between sexual titillation and artistic decency found in so-called borderline material and as a result is generally considered “lowbrow” and populist.27
Since its inception, the pinup has been commonly discussed in relation to its cultural value or worth (traditionally, by the bourgeoisie in particular, it is perceived to have none), sexual appeal (degrading, debased, even a threat), and presumed male audience (often cast as dangerous and vile, or at least oppressive).28 The St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture observes in its definition of pinup that it is
a species of the portrait, yanked down off the walls of exclusive galleries and museums and posted in ordinary gas stations and pool halls. Generated by the development and proliferation of inexpensive processes of photography, lithography, and colour printing, the pin-up contributed to more democratic, and perhaps inevitably more vulgar, understandings of celebrity, voyeurism, consumption, and eroticism, closing the gap in taste and appreciation between classical nudes and burlesque showgirls.29
Here the emphasis on the “ordinary,” “inexpensive” appeal of the pinup (opposed to the extraordinary, unique, valuable “art” found on “the walls of exclusive galleries and museums”) appears at first to have been taken as evidence of a more egalitarian form. Yet this definition simultaneously reveals the paradoxes at the pinup's heart. The “gas station” and the “pool hall” are commonly marked and clearly intended here as male homosocial spaces, suggesting a presumed male audience and a female subject who is potentially denied physical presence or agency within the equation. A distinctly Bourdieuian argument is also applicable here. It is not content necessarily that divides art from pornography and legitimate from illegitimate, but the ways and contexts in which particular texts are placed and consumed, and by whom. In short, “taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier.”30 In his essay “Naked Ambitions: Pornography, Taste and the Problem of the Middlebrow,” Mark Jancovich develops this argument, contending:
The meaning of any text is not eternally inscribed within its form but changes, as it is positioned or repositioned in different categories, as they are consumed according to different competences and dispositions. A picture may be read “aesthetically” in terms of its form, or “pornographically” as a depiction of a naked body that excites desire in the viewer. But such readings are not simply individual choices. On the contrary, as Bourdieu argues, they correspond to specific taste formations that are, in turn, tied to the situation of specific social classes.31
He further observes that debates regarding sexual imagery are not simply “political struggles over gender relations,” but also “political struggles between these different taste formations.” “As Laura Kipnis has pointed out,” he says, “the moral outrage at pornographic forms can often be seen as ‘the desire to distance [oneself] from and if possible banish from existence the cause of [one's] distress—the sexual expression of people unlike [oneself].’”32
While the St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture definition suggests that the pinup occupies a cultural space between “classical nudes” and “burlesque showgirls,” the form's noted “inexpensive[ness]” and its “vulgar[ity]” mark it as lowbrow, and therefore unwelcome within “exclusive galleries” due to its inherent unworthiness. Presumably these images are vulgar partially because of their sexualized subjects and also because of a common argument that they are dated, retrograde, narrow, and objectifying. Yet this interpretation is by no means universal, and, as Joanne Hollows observes in her 2006 study of middle-class women returning to the home in the 2000s, the “cultural significance” of elements and ideologies that run counter to second-wave feminist notions of tolerable female representations nonetheless still “need to be take[n] seriously.”33
Considering Betty Friedan's account of the range of female representations available in the popular media at the time Yeager and her work were culturally prominent, Joanne Meyerowitz notes how “according to this now standard historical account,” the postwar media urged women to return to the home “while only a handful of social scientists, trade unionists, and feminists protested.”34 She continues: “For a journalistic expose, Friedan's work has had a surprisingly strong influence on historiography. In fact, since Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, historians of American women have adopted wholesale her version of the post-war ideology.”35 However, as Meyerowitz's reassessment of the discourse surrounding women in postwar mass-circulation monthly magazines and the Yeager example demonstrate, Friedan's history was very much of its time, and the situation in both the media and society at large was not as straightforward as The Feminine Mystique suggests. In a similar vein to Hollows, Meyerowitz reasons that “mass culture is rife with contradictions, ambivalence and competing voices.”36
In short, The Feminine Mystique actually reflected the narrow experience of a particular suburban, white, middle-class, female demographic. Furthermore, while Friedan claimed that she, like the other women who formed this demographic, were so trapped, so compliant, that they weren't “even conscious of the woman problem,” Daniel Horowitz's study of Friedan the author, rather than her writings, demonstrates that the reality behind her public facade was more complex. In his detailed exploration of Friedan prior to The Feminine Mystique—her radical education, her work and activism as a union journalist, her writing that often “expressed overt admiration for women whose individual striving moved them beyond the home,” and her experience as a mother who worked out of psychological as well as financial necessity—Horowitz reveals how Friedan's life and career ran counter to the rigid precepts of female experience The Feminine Mystique detailed.37
As Meyerowitz shows, a range of domestic and nondomestic feminine representations indeed appeared in the postwar American media. They were discussed in positive and negative terms, and within broader contexts of modernity, democracy, conservativism, and progressivism, advocating and criticizing various women's life choices and opportunities.38 Yeager was part of that range of media representations, busily pursuing a successful photographic career outside of the domestic sphere and very much in the public eye.
Considering another claim made by Friedan, that through a combination of boredom, limitation, and the popular media, American women of this era were ‘“reduced to sex creatures,” Meyerowitz disputes this, too, considering it “unabashedly hyperbolic.” Citing examples of letters written to magazines of the time, she contends that “in the case of sex appeal we have explicit letters of dissent.”39 Yeager and her work offer another example to challenge Friedan's claim. Increasing postwar liberalism and permissive attitudes meant that by the 1960s, “the female body as sexual symbol [had] permeated American popular culture.”40 as Meyerowitz observes, “As sexual images of women multiplied in the popular culture, women participated actively in constructing arguments to endorse as well as protest them. The open battles between women not only involved moralism, modernism, and mass-marketed culture but also concepts of respectability, female beauty, feminism, racial equality, and maternalism.”41
Placing Yeager and her work within this context, and in light of her celebrity, her working practices, and the points she made verbally about that working practice (particularly in her 1963 film Bunny Yeager's Nude Camera), it is apparent that Yeager and her photographs would not have been universally understood as objectifying or oppressive, and for good reason. While Friedan talks of the suburban housewife's experience of “joyless,” dysfunctional sex and of waiting “all day” for her husband “to come home at night” to make her “feel alive,” Yeager's labor and images are premised at least in part upon her own playful exploration of female sexuality as a performative game or outlet for personal and artistic expression and experimentation, and a process of ongoing learning.42 Alternatively, while Friedan discusses passive, confined domesticity in her writing, in Yeager we find an example of a woman who appears to revel in consciously constructing a range of sexually agent feminine personae and mediating access to these representations, often in her own home.43 Her desire and apparent ability to “have it all,” to successfully secure and maintain a prominent presence within the public spheres of the labor market and the popular media while being a married mother, offers a more active, self-determined, and less wretched counter to Friedan's image of trapped, understimulated, domestic womanhood. As Petra Mason observes: “Way before Germaine Greer published her main thesis, The Female Eunuch, about how traditional married life represses women, the thoroughly modern Bunny was at home ignoring them all, posing in a see-through peignoir, switching the lights on and off for added drama and taking playful, provocative and at times erotic portraits of herself.”44
Yeager's notoriety as a glamour photographer and her access to young, attractive female models is key to the titillating appeal of the pseudo-documentary Bunny Yeager's Nude Camera (figure 4). The film purports to show a week in the life of Yeager, offering an exposé of the modeling and photographic industries and “an intimate study of feminine beauty.”45 It is self-reflexive, with Yeager, her husband, and Playboy playmate Lisa Winters all playing themselves.46 Dramatizing actual events within Yeager's career, including Yeager's discovery of Winters on a Miami bus, it reinforces the implication that audiences are being offered a tantalizing behind-the-scenes glimpse of “the world's foremost photographer of nudes in action!” as the tagline proclaims.47 They see her not only photographing semi-clad models and scouting for new talent, but also, of obvious interest here, attempting to balance work and family responsibilities.48
Despite the film's preoccupation with Yeager's models (particularly their breasts), Yeager's celebrity persona dominates Nude Camera. She is the film's narrator, and by playing herself she is also the protagonist. Hers is the authorial voice. Rather than merely offering audiences a series of nude images, Nude Camera is a narrative work constructed around Yeager, exploiting her celebrity and professional reputation and engaging with issues she experiences: as a woman and a driven practitioner in a male-dominated, highly competitive industry, and as a working wife and mother.49 In one scene Yeager returns home after a late shoot. Her husband, Bud, is in bed. Joining him, Yeager asks, “Did my mother get the kids fed all right today?” “Sure,” he replies, “but you're getting to be a stranger around here,” a point that appears to be being made (or at least taken by Yeager) out of concern for her well-being, rather than out of frustration at her absence from the family home. Surprisingly, Yeager's response is to negotiate more time at work in order to complete her project, bargaining with her husband, “Then we'll have the whole weekend together.” Of course in the film's final scene, workaholic Yeager spots a new modeling prospect and in her voice-over exclaims, “What was I saying about the weekend? Oh well, business first! Who knows, this might be my biggest discovery!”
Through Yeager the film also acknowledges, in some limited capacity, the politics at the heart of women's choices regarding access to and representations of their bodies at this time. In one scene, a hesitant Lisa Winters expresses concern about her partner's reaction to her modeling, and Yeager couches her dogged response in terms of gender power struggles, progress, permissiveness, and a woman's right to choose:
He'll object. You can expect that, but don't get upset about it and start an argument. Keep cool and be insistent…. Men are vain, egotistical and possessive … bless them. Your grandfather wouldn't let your grandmother show her ankle and your father probably objected to bare midriffs. We've reached about the last line now and they're really putting up a fight.
As Carrie Pitzulo argues in her discussion of Playboy in the 1960s and 1970s, the adoption of a seemingly progressive stance on issues surrounding women's conduct is perhaps not surprising if the behaviors in question can work to the advantage of those who might wish to objectify, oppress, or degrade women.50 However, as she observes, “Playboy offered America more than just pictures of naked women. The magazine [also] hosted important discussions about women's liberation.”51 Nude Camera also offers more than just naked women. Yeager's centrality to the diegesis, her authority as the narrator, and the prominence of her practice within the film all underscore the agency and professional competency displayed within the narrative, reinforcing preexisting understandings of her broader star text. This potent combination makes Yeager's statement to Winters regarding access to the female body, and who has the right to grant this, all the more impactful. Clearly Yeager isn't suggesting that Winters become the gatekeeper for her own body by undertaking a vehement or more pronounced rejection of men's perceived right to veto women's behavior. She is advocating a “soft power” approach to women's emancipation—a less confrontational, more subtly persuasive and negotiated process similar to that which she herself appears to practice at home with Bud. Nor is Yeager's argument a capitalist one; her argument is progressive rather than permissive. This is not merely about Yeager obtaining the right to exploit Winter's sexuality and labor to “get ahead.” As she emphasizes at several points in Nude Camera, she pays and treats her models well, making them economically agent and able to better their own conditions and achieve their goals. For example, by modeling for Yeager, Winters can afford to marry her boyfriend and start a home.
Living in an age of instantaneous digital photographic processes, of selfies and Instagram, and as panics surrounding teen “sexting” and the fracas surrounding Kim Kardashian's nude selfie have highlighted, erotic or just plain naked self-portraiture is now, for good or ill, quite commonplace. An Internet meme that circulated on social media immediately after Kardashian's photographic broadcast proclaimed, “In a world of Kardashians, be a [insert the name of a golden age Hollywood goddess here],” the implication being that because she came from an earlier age, the chosen Hollywood starlet would have more “style,” “class,” or restraint than Kardashian, and would know better than to pose nude or at least not deliberately make such an image available in the public sphere. But who is to say that that would have been the case? Given the technology and the opportunity, we can never know who might have photographed themselves provocatively and made it public. In fact, as a matter of course most of the Hollywood starlets used in the above Internet meme were photographed and promoted to the public through soft-focus, black-and-white, erotically charged “glamour shots.”
This Internet meme and many of the accusations leveled at Kardashian highlight the taste debate at the heart of women's sexualities and sexualized representations, and how contextually dependent the reception of such a portrayal is. The meme also highlights our potential to misrepresent the past, to misunderstand these representations outside of their context. Just like soft-focus Hollywood portraits, Bunny Yeager's pinups are now considered highly collectible “erotica” rather than borderline materials or soft-core pornography, a subtle but important distinction that marks one text as worthy of consideration, the other not, one offensive, the other art, one even potentially progressive and the other retrograde or oppressive.52
By their nature, borderline texts test the boundaries of propriety, just as progressive representations expand the limits of what is acceptable. As such Yeager's work and other borderline materials have the potential to empower and to challenge, and to overlook this or at least fail to examine such texts for evidence of such potential distorts the historical narrative surrounding women's subjectivity. While Yeager's self-portraiture is sexualized, the politics of looking, identity, and identification are complex and worthy of ongoing scrutiny.
In Nude Camera and in examples of self-reflexive self-portraiture, Yeager deliberately and repeatedly draws attention to her method, her tools, her control over the photographic scenario, and the way she plays with the dynamics of looking. If we consider her photographs in light of her use of awarish address and through the lens of her celebrity image as presented through her writings and the films and television programs in which she appeared, this extra-textual aspect of her persona brings into focus her skill, her choices, her agency. This celebrity, built on competence and authority, allowed her particular privileges, such as a platform to speak, that as a woman she would probably otherwise have been denied (for example her representation in Nude Camera as a working mother is sympathetic), and she takes full advantage of this situation.
In the end, Frank's claim that Yeager “was a feminist before the term was part of the cultural conversation” has some usefulness, but only some. While Yeager was a rarity, even a curiosity as a female practitioner working in a male-dominated field, this alone does not make her or her work “feminist.” Equally, while Yeager's comments as featured in Frank's quote reveal a determination to succeed in a male-dominated profession and a desire for her work to be considered on its own merits, again this is not necessarily the marker of a feminist text or practitioner. But “feminist” or not, her work still merits consideration in the context of the postwar period's burgeoning, second-wave feminist movement.