Two photos released Sunday show a smiling Rep. Gabrielle Giffords with much shorter and darker hair and few signs of the injuries she suffered when a bullet pierced her skull five months ago.

The images, the clearest yet of the lawmaker who was targeted in a deadly Arizona shooting rampage, were taken by a professional photographer May 17 at her Houston rehabilitation facility.

The photos were released on Giffords’s Facebook page and were not altered or edited, according to her staff.

They “show Gabby has traveled a remarkable distance since Jan. 8,” the day a gunman killed six people, shot Giffords in the head and wounded more than 12 others during a meet-and-greet with constituents in Tucson, said spokesman CJ Karamargin.

Since the attack, Giffords aides and family have closely guarded the congresswoman’s appearance and news of her recovery, which has mainly been released by doctors who have performed surgeries to heal brain swelling and other damage caused by her gunshot wound.

Set to be released as soon as this month from the rehabilitation center, the Arizona Democrat hoped to dampen paparazzi interest in her condition and appearance, Karamargin said.

In April, rumors surfaced that a $200,000 bounty was being offered for photos of Giffords in recovery.

“This was Mark and Gabby’s decision,” Karamargin said. “There is intense interest in the congresswoman’s appearance, and on the threshold of her going to outpatient treatment, we thought this was a good way to satisfy public curiosity.”

Her recovery has been lauded by doctors and her staff. Giffords is expected to be released as early as this month from the Houston medical facility where she has undergone treatment, including a cranioplasty surgery in May.

Giffords was “smiling and laughing,” said photographer P.K. Weis, a former photojournalist asked by the lawmaker to take the photos, who added that “she seemed to enjoy the experience.”

But questions still loom over her cognitive abilities, speech and political future.

The shooting occurred days after Giffords was sworn in for her third term in the House. She has worked in therapy to recover her strength and her ability to speak and walk.

“We know this is going to be more of a marathon than a sprint, but her release into outpatient care will be another sign of progress,” Karamargin said.

He added that Giffords was injured while on the job and has no plans to leave her congressional seat. Her term expires in January 2013.

Caring comments

The photos drew relief and support. Her Facebook page drew thousands of supporters within hours after the photos were released. “Thank God for your health, God Bless you and your family about an hour ago,” wrote a Miami resident in a sentiment echoed by hundreds of other commenters.

Another observer wrote, “What a joy to see such a remarkable Smiling Survivor! That beautiful picture made my day!”

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), a friend of Giffords, said Sunday on “Meet the Press” that the two lawmakers spoke last week and had a “wonderful conversation,” with Giffords speaking in full sentences.

Last week, her staff sang “Happy Birthday” to Giffords on a conference call. She responded, “That’s great. Thank you,” according to Karamargin.

The photos were taken one day after she traveled to Florida to see her astronaut husband, Mark Kelly, launch into space on the shuttle Endeavour.

In video captured by a news helicopter, Giffords was seen standing from a wheelchair and walking slowly up stairs into an airplane. But the images were too grainy to get a clear sense of her appearance.

The photos released Sunday show some signs of the bullet that pierced through the left side of her brain. One eye appears smaller than the other, her eyebrows are slightly offset, and there is a slight depression near her left eye.

Shortly after Giffords was shot, a portion of her skull was removed to ease pressure on her brain caused by swelling. In May, a plastic replacement for that portion of her skull was put into place.