Hester Lacey meets a photographer with a mission: to redefine female beauty
You are a photographer, and your chosen theme is the representation of the female body. You want to create a series of portraits that illustrate the ageing process. So, who do you ask to strip off? How about your mum? Perhaps few of us would dare to make such a request, but Melanie Manchot has completed around 40 nude studies of her mother, now 66, over the past three years.

Melanie's large studio in London's east end is lined with the powerful black and white images, printed onto huge canvases that make her sitter larger than life. "I couldn't have made my work the way it is if it hadn't been my mother," she explains. "There is a fundamental working relationship between us, but it's based on trust because of the personal relationship."

Her earlier studies avoid showing her sitter's face; the flesh has the rolling qualities of landscape. "She was initially happy to give it a go, but she wanted to retain an element of anonymity," says Melanie, 31. "The first time I took pictures of her it was strange - I'm used to seeing mum walking around naked, but the camera was quite an alienating object between us. We talked about all the shots, and there was always the understanding that if she didn't like any of them I would destroy them. At any point she could have said `I don't like this' - I was surprised that she never did.

"After less than a year, she asked me to do the portraits - I felt happy, because it was an acknowledgement that she was happy with what we were doing. My work really changed when I could use her face - the face is such a strong expression of personality." Mrs Manchot was surprised by the images, but not in the way her daughter expected. "Because they are so big, they make her look big, and she said: `Oh, I always wanted to be tall.'"

Melanie, who trained in photography at the Royal College of Art, hopes her work will help to redefine the notion of beauty. "There have been hundreds of years of paintings that have defined female beauty, but the modern media have taken a certain, overblown and static way of defining it, which is very restrictive - women who are very tall, very young, very thin. It's an impossible image, and quite dangerous. It puts pressure on women of all ages, and men, too, to follow that particular image. I wanted to find another way of looking at beauty."

Is her mother a beautiful woman? "To me, yes. Very much so. Her beauty to me is also an expression of her strength, life and experience. And when you work with someone so long, you get to know every inch of their body and face and find them even more beautiful."

She is also confronting western society's distaste for ageing. "There is still a real taboo around ageing - particularly about showing older women's bodies," she says. "It strikes a chord because we're all going that way. No one likes to think about the fact that we are all becoming old. We have to confront our mortality, though I don't see my pictures as morbid. This century has seen so many advances in women's rights but older women are still invisible - a problem no one likes to tackle. There is a monumental quality to these images that makes my mother a representation that goes beyond her own person."

Mrs Manchot, whose picture is now in the Saatchi collection, has taken to her role with enthusiasm. In the earlier photographs, she gazes levelly, almost defiantly at the camera; in later works, she smiles and laughs playfully. Once the initial shock of her nudity passes, the attention is drawn as much by her deep eyes, strong face and expressive hands as her body. "Early on, I would have to pose her, tell her what to do. But now she comes up with her own ideas and images," says Melanie.

She hopes to continue the project for years to come, and is experimenting with photographing herself with her mother - and her new baby daughter. "It will be amazing to see what happens over the years - how she changes and how we change in the way we work together. After all, I'm changing, too. I have a strong sense of pride that Mum agreed to do this. I think it was brave."

See Melanie Manchot's work from 18 Oct to 7 Dec in an exhibition by the Royal Photographic Society at The Octagon Galleries, Milsom Street, Bath, 01225 462841. She will also give an illustrated talk on 1 Nov and a one- day workshop on 2 Nov.