There is a particular self-portrait of a bikini-clad Bunny Yeager (Yeager being the pin-up model-cum-photographer responsible for that 1955 Bettie Page Santa hat Playboy cover) perched on a stool on a beach, head thrown back in glee, which never fails to supply me with a healthy dose of self-confidence.
At first glance, the image seems undifferentiated from the posed but vivacious, innocent but sensual images of women which make up Yeager’s oeuvre. Yeager’s arms are thrown up behind her head, she is laughing into the wind and a strategically placed mirror and camera behind her in the shot offer the viewer a sense of her wonderfully soft figure from all angles. We see a beautiful woman, her Rubenesque body proudly on display, perfectly poised and radiantly happy.
But there is something else lingering in the frame which gives the image a latent power. The photo in question is not simply a source of empowerment for me because Yeager’s ample thighs and squishy tummy look remarkably like my own, but because of what the presence of the camera within the shot does to the final product. The camera atop a tripod behind Yeager, in combination with the mirror, inscribes a kind of authorship on the scene. The mirror, faithfully reflecting Yeager’s figure from another angle, is not for the spectator’s benefit but for Yeager herself as she controls how she is captured.
The softness of Yeager’s body is not given up for the pleasure of another but is tied to self-love, self-appreciation and autonomy. The apparatus of the photo, a potent symbol of power, is woven into the message of the photograph itself: a rather bold proclamation of self-ownership as well as pride for her body as she sees it. Yeager’s image encourages me to feel love for my body for my own sake and for my gaze. My lens is just as, if not more, legitimising.