Friday evening, an unverified Twitter account posted a photograph of President Donald Trump exhibiting a serious facial tan line. By Saturday, the photograph had gone viral, with people across social media questioning the photographer’s motives — and making memes.

The photo was shared by the account @photowhitehouse, which claims to be run by a photographer named “William Moon.” It features Trump looking wryly over his shoulder, with the wind picking his hair up in a way that reveals a stark contrast between the color of his face and the area around his hairline.

Other photos of the same moment — Trump crossing the White House’s South Lawn after returning from a trip to North Carolina — also show a tan line, but not nearly as starkly.

President Donald Trump crosses the South Lawn of the White House on February 7, 2020.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

The difference between images available on wire services like the one above and Moon’s left some wondering if Moon’s image was a sly parody, particularly given that the contrast in skin tone was even more distinct in a black-and-white follow-up posted several hours later.

There are, of course, a number of reasons Moon’s image and those available commercially differ — the color on the president’s face could have been heightened intentionally, by upping the image’s contrast, for instance; or could be a natural occurrence caused by the composition’s lighting and angle of the shot. In any event, the photo immediately gave rise to memes, including comparisons to Mrs. Doubtfire, Wilson the volleyball, beauty blend fails, and even blackface.

Despite their work now being the subject of intense public interest, Moon remains a mysterious figure. The photographer appears to be a Trump enthusiast who attends White House open press events. Since 2017, Moon has shared photos of the president on an unverified Twitter account that now has some 18,000 followers. The account’s bio reads, “White House Correspondent, Journalist, Photographer, Poet and Pesco Vegetarian.” A linked Instagram account has under 700 followers.

Some on social media joked that Moon might be fired for sharing the photo, but the photographer is not affiliated with the White House, and is not a member of the White House News Photographers Association. The official White House photographer is Shealah Craighead, and Moon’s photos seem to come only from open press events.

This suggests that Moon is cleared for at least limited White House access — for instance, the photographer appears to have been in the East Room during Trump’s post-impeachment speech on Thursday — but may not have any official ties to the executive branch, or the press corps that covers it.

A prolific Twitter user, Moon posts an average of 15 times a day, often sharing photographs with florid captions. Trump “was dancing with the sunset and strong winds when he walked to the Oval Office from the Marine One on the South Lawn,” the copy accompanying the black-and-white shot from Friday reads. And Moon’s thousands of media tweets include photos of the area around the White House, and of nature — especially birds and the moon — around the DC metro area.

The account is also a favorite among some QAnon followers, who scour his posts for clues related to that convoluted conspiracy theory — including Moon’s pinned tweet, a 53-minute long press briefing from 2017.

But none of Moon’s posts have enjoyed anywhere near the level of engagement as this photo, which was liked and shared tens of thousands of times.

Trump himself addressed the photo’s veracity on Saturday afternoon, calling it “More Fake News.”

“This was photoshopped, obviously, but the wind was strong and the hair looks good? Anything to demean!,” Trump wrote on Twitter.

Trump is sensitive about his appearance, and seems well aware of the narrative power of images

Trump’s distinctive appearance — the poofy, flaxen hair, the perennially-bronzed face — has long been a topic of fixation, since well before he entered politics.

For his detractors, the president’s appearance has been a source of mockery. Beginning in the 1980s, when he was a real-estate mogul in New York, the underground publication Spy began referring to him as a “short-fingered vulgarian.” The image-based critiques have only increased since he took the world stage as president.

In part, this is because the conversation about the president’s looks — particularly his trademark hue — is more than skin-deep. It has given his opponents an easy way to ridicule him (comparing his skin to Cheetos, or hoisting large orange balloons in his likeness) that does not touch upon the substance of his presidency or policies, and is in a way reminiscent of the president’s own nicknames for his enemies like “Mini Mike” (a reference to former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s height) or “Sleepyeyes Chuck Todd” (Trump’s derogatory name for the Meet the Press host).

Trump himself has indicated that he feels self-conscious about comments regarding his appearance. As Vox’s Aaron Rupar reported, he has repeatedly blamed energy-efficient lightbulbs for his orange sheen.

“The new lightbulb costs five times as much, and it makes you look orange. And I was more interested in the orange than I was in the cost,” he said at a campaign rally in Milwaukee in January.

The particularities of Trump’s makeup regimen has also been picked apart. Reporters have searched for answers about how he maintains his glow. According to one New York Times report, an administration official has attributed this to “good genes;” the Washington Post has credited a Swiss makeup line, and former aide Omarosa Manigault has said the president tans daily.

All presidents are image-conscious — they are, of course, among the most visible figures in the world — and the pictures released by official photographers help shape a narrative about an administration. In some ways, Friday’s more candid image, with Trump’s artificial skin tone sharply contrasted with his natural coloring, affirmed what each side already thinks of this president. Detractors saw artifice and incompetence, while supporters saw a cheeky glint in his eye.

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