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Virginia Best Adams; Ansel Adams’ Widow

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Yosemite was a constant touchstone in the life of Virginia Best Adams, the sometimes collaborator, sometimes publisher and overall steadying influence in the life of her husband, the late photographer Ansel Adams.

But her roots to Yosemite, the park her husband helped make famous in his classic photographs of Half Dome and the Yosemite Valley, took hold much earlier and flourished far longer than the better-known Ansel’s.

The quiet woman behind the famous photographer was born to San Franciscan parents who had married at the foot of Bridal Veil Falls in 1901, and she actually lived in the park for 68 years--from the time she was 6 months old until 1972, when she moved with her husband to the Monterey Bay area. Even beyond that, Yosemite remained “home” to her, and she returned there time and again to vote or attend the Bracebridge dinners at the Ahwahnee Hotel. She made her last visit about five years ago when she was 91.

For 36 years, Virginia Best Adams, who died Jan. 29 at her home in Carmel Highlands at the age of 96, ran what is now the Ansel Adams Gallery and in the process helped give her husband the wherewithal for him to do his photographic work.

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That gallery, started by her father, Harry Cassie Best, a landscape painter, in 1902, is now operated by her son’s family. It is the oldest concession in the national park system operated continually by the same family.

Growing up in Yosemite was a special time for Virginia Best, a girl who loved the outdoors, with plenty of chances available to explore the valley. But her early life was not without its hardships. Her mother died of tuberculosis when Virginia was just 16. As an only child, she took over running the household and began helping out in her father’s studio, which by then had also become a gift shop selling curios and crafts.

A year later, a budding young pianist began stopping by the Best home, which had--in addition to the blond, blue-eyed Virginia--a Chickering upright piano. The young pianist’s name was Ansel Adams.

Several years later they were married. Again the ceremony was in Yosemite, in her father’s studio.

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A strong figure in her own right, Virginia Best Adams was an active environmentalist and was the first woman to be elected to the board of the Sierra Club, a post she held from 1931-33. She was also credited with being one of the first to climb two peaks in the Kaweah area in what is now Sequoia National Park.

After her father’s death in 1936, Adams updated the inventory in the gallery and turned the emphasis toward photography. Instead of stocking cheap curios as remembrances of a Yosemite visit, the store began selling a series of Ansel Adams photographs called “special edition prints.” Sales of these prints, as well as profits from a more refined line of Indian arts, including rugs, pottery and ceramics, provided a steady income so that Ansel Adams might travel to pursue his photography. At the same time, the popular gallery supported the growing family, which by then included son Michael and daughter Anne.

As a collaborator, Adams wrote the text for “Michael and Anne in the Yosemite Valley,” a children’s book describing a day in the life of her youngsters growing up in the High Sierra. Another book, “The Illustrated Guide to the Yosemite Valley,” with her husband’s photographs, was published in 1940 but was so popular that updated editions continued to surface into the 1960s.

In the 1950s, Virginia Best Adams’ success with the gallery also financed the publication of two of her husband’s books, “My Camera in the National Park,” and “My Camera in Yosemite.” At that time she and her husband made their first foray into outside publishing, financing Edward Weston’s “My Camera at Point Lobos,” which while a critical success was a commercial failure. It proved to be the last book for Weston, whose ability to use a camera was becoming severely impaired by the onset of Parkinson’s disease.

For the most part, however, Virginia Adams was content to be in the background. She was continually described by observers of the period as a gracious woman who was expert at both entertaining and making visitors welcome.

Camera shy and not generally at ease with reporters, she once summed up her contribution by saying simply “I guess I’m the one who just tried to keep things going.”

She is survived by her two children, Dr. Michael Adams of Fresno, and Anne Adams Helms of Stockton, five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Her husband died in 1984 at the age of 82.

In a news release late last week announcing her death and the memorial service, which was held Friday, the Adams family noted that “if friends want to honor her memory, the cause closest to her heart was The Virginia Adams Master Class Fund at the Carmel Bach Festival (P.O. Box 575, Carmel, Calif. 93921).”

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