By Deborah Quinn Hensel

HOUSTON (Reuters) - The first photos of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords since she was shot in January were released on Sunday on her Facebook page.

The photos of the Arizona Democrat were taken by a professional photographer the day before her cranioplasty surgery in May.

"Any photographer in the country would have loved the opportunity to take these pictures and I was delighted to be asked," said photographer P.K. Weis of SouthwestPhotoBank.com in a statement released with the photos.

In the photos, a smiling Giffords is seen with very short hair, wearing glasses and a burgundy shirt with a colorful collar.

The photos were taken May 17 at TIRR Memorial Hermann Hospital, the day after the launch of the Endeavour shuttle mission commanded by Giffords' husband Mark Kelly and the day before her surgery to replace a part of her skull.

Weis, who has known Giffords for more than a decade, said that the congresswoman's mother, a close friend, and one of her staff members were present for the photo shoot.

"It was very inspiring to see how much she had recovered in four and a half months," Weis said. "I was excited to see her and to see her smile. She was glad to see me, was in a good mood, smiling and laughing and seemed to enjoy the experience. I certainly did, too."

Giffords has been recovering and undergoing therapy at the Houston hospital since she was shot January 8 at a political event in Tucson, Arizona. The 22-year-old suspected gunman now in custody, Jared Lee Loughner, allegedly fired into the crowd, wounding 13 people and killing six, including a federal judge, a child, and one of Giffords' aides.

Weis worked at the Tucson Citizen for 36 years, including 30 as photo editor, until the paper closed in 2009.

(Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Barbara Goldberg)




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