Was it just an innocent shopping trip, a chance to escape the White House bubble or a clever bit of image manipulation?

Photos taken by an Associated Press photographer of first lady Michelle Obama strolling away from the checkout counter at a Target store in Alexandria circled the globe Friday. The images were unusual and striking, depicting the elegant first lady, in an unglamorous disguise, shopping at a discount store familiar to millions of Americans.

Many found the images delightful and refreshing. “First Ladies . . . They’re just like us!” gushed NBC’s “Today” show in promoting its coverage of Obama’s excursion.

But almost as soon as the pictures hit televisions, newspapers and Web sites, the Obamas’ critics were raising suspicions, suggesting the trip was a calculated attempt to deflect criticism of the first lady’s more expensive tastes in vacations and wardrobe.

“First Lady Michelle Obama shopping at Target with an AP photographer in tow . . . . planned? I think so,” tweeted Fox News and syndicated radio host Sean Hannity.

“One wonders if First Lady Michelle Obama truly thought she could pass for an ‘everywoman’ as she shopped” at Target, sniffed the Blaze, a Web site launched last year by radio host Glenn Beck.

Rush Limbaugh called it “What a phony-baloney plastic banana good-time rock-and-roller optic photo op.”

As predictable as the criticism was, there might have been something to the notion of White House orchestration.

Neither the White House nor the Associated Press will say how AP photographer Charles Dharapak came to be the only news photographer present at the Alexandria Target to capture Obama’s shopping excursion.

“All I can say is that it was the result of good source work on his part,” AP spokesman Paul Colford said, declining to elaborate on the sources or the work involved.

A spokeswoman for Michelle Obama, Kristina Schake, also declined to discuss how the photographs came about. In a statement, she said, “It is not uncommon for the First Lady to slip out to run an errand, eat at a local restaurant or otherwise enjoy the city outside the White House gates.”

But it is uncommon, and perhaps unprecedented, for a single news organization to record such a trip. First ladies, such as Laura Bush and Hillary Rodham Clinton, occasionally went shopping or on outings in Washington without anyone in the media tagging along.

An official White House photographer often records private or personal moments involving the president and first lady. But news organizations are hesitant to publish such photos because they are considered promotional. Having a respected news organization such as the Associated Press take and distribute the photos, on the other hand, might increase their newsworthiness, considering that they were produced independent of the White House’s image-making machinery.

As a practical matter, it’s difficult to know in advance where a first lady is headed without White House cooperation. Obama, unlike the president, doesn’t travel with a regular press retinue that records every public moment. The White House doesn’t “provide details about the first lady’s personal activities” to protect her privacy, said Semonti Stephens, a spokeswoman.

Dharapak, who has declined interview requests, is a veteran news photographer assigned to the White House. He doesn’t regularly cover the first lady, though he was part of the press pool that shot pictures of her family trip to southern Africa in June.

Moreover, Dharapak appears to have been fortunate to have been able to take photos inside the store. Corporate chains such as Target prohibit news photography on company-owned premises without prior permission. Camera crews that went to the Alexandria Target after the photos were released were allowed to shoot footage inside the store only with the company’s approval and only in designated areas for a limited time.

Obama is a generally popular figure, but she has taken an unusual amount of criticism for a first lady from the likes of Limbaugh and other conservatives. Amid a severe recession, they have upbraided her for personal trips abroad and summer vacations in Martha’s Vineyard. The sniping was renewed two weeks ago, when she appeared at a fundraiser in New York wearing $40,000 worth of borrowed diamond jewelry.

Bob Steele, a journalism ethics professor at DePauw University in Indiana, says the available facts don’t quite warrant the conclusion that Mrs. Obama’s trip to Target was calculated to counter that criticism.

“Journalists and news organizations should not allow themselves to be manipulated in the pursuit of truthful and fair news coverage,” he said, adding, “and, in general, they should be more open about revealing the methods and processes they use to gather the news,” such as disclosing any agreements made with a news source.

But in this case, he said, “absent some cards that haven’t been turned face up on the table, there’s no evidence to suggest that the White House and AP were in cahoots.”