Based on photographer Frédéric Brenner's 25-year journey photographing Jewish communities in 40 countries over five continents, Diaspora: Homelands in Exile (Oct.) is a groundbreaking social document. It's also one of the most unusual books that HarperCollins has published, according to CEO Jane Friedman.

Seeking to answer the question "what makes a people?," the photographs depict Jewish life from Soviet Birobidzhan to Ethiopia to Miami Beach. The first of Diaspora's two volumes contains more than 2 50 full-page photographs selected from Brenner's archive of 80,000 images. The second volume reprints smaller versions of some photographs, along with commentary by the French photographer and other experts arranged, "Talmudic-style," in the margins.

The Enigma of Identity

In a 1988 photo, Brenner captures five Marranos, members of a group of Crypto-Jews living in northern Portugal, celebrating Passover. "This is the most extraordinary story of survival," he told PW. "Officially, they are baptized, married and buried by the priest. Underneath, they have a total double identity. They observe Yom Kippur and Passover. But in order to fool the Inquisition, they postponed Passover to a month later. And you have here the tiles on which they bake the matzot. Now imagine them singing the Hagadah. Because of the Inquisition, nothing was written, everything was transmitted orally for 500 years. Though the Inquisition was abolished in 1832, the Marranos still postpone the date [of Passover]. So the secret became the essence of the ritual. It became the ritual within a ritual."

Though the book includes a photo Brenner took when he was 18, he "didn't wake up one morning and think that I was going to undertake this journey," he said. Still, that 1978 image of the Mea Shearim quarter of Jerusalem, which Jewish immigrants had designed to look like the Eastern European village they had left, captured some of the paradoxes of Jewish exile and homecoming that have come to pervade Brenner's work.

"I believe that one does what he does because of the part of himself that he ignores more than because of what he knows about himself," he said. "Really, this project is more about the enigma of identity than about anything that I can explain. It's a book of questions—some that I have tried to answer, and some [that raise even] more questions now."

Looking back at the photographs that he has taken over the last quarter-century, Brenner was also struck by how the Jews he encountered represented a vast spectrum of lifestyles and social conditions, from "antique to postmodern, tribal, medieval, industrial." "To say that [an Ethiopian woman] is a contemporary of the wife of a general [in Birobidzhan]or an American woman is quite unbelievable. This is the unique thing about our generation," he commented. "We span the entire spectrum of time and space. No other generation before could do it, and no other will be able to do it later."

Reaching the Market

Though Diaspora represents a bit of a leap for HarperCollins, which is not known for illustrated books, publisher Susan Weinberg saw it another way. "I think of this as a major nonfiction book by an incredibly important author who's very good at promotion—not as an art book or photography book," she said. Still, the house devoted considerable care to the design and production of the book, creating a unique layout for each page.

For some consumers, the $100 pricetag for the two slipcased volumes may also be a leap, though bookseller Mitchell Kaplan doesn't expect it to be a sticking point at his two Books & Books stores in Miami, Fla. "In context, it's not that expensive," he said. "There are other photography books that flirt with $100, and this is an important social document."

An extensive marketing plan scheduled to unfold for several months after the book goes on sale September 30 should generate customer interest and help counteract any misgivings regarding price. One natural promotional tool is a retrospective of Brenner's photographs at the Brooklyn Museum of Art from October 3, 2003, through January 11, 2004. Diaspora will be sold in the museum shop in lieu of a catalogue.

Three years ago, the photography book African Ceremonies (Abrams, 1999) by Angela Fisher and Carol Beckwith, received similar treatment. That two-volume book, priced at $150, was sold in conjunction with an exhibition of the photographers' work at the museum in 2000, and has sold close to 60,000 copies to date.

For his part, Brenner will do a six-city lecture tour, including appearances at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., and the Skirball Museum in Los Angeles. From late October through December, he will tour 10 to 15 mid-sized cities, arranged in conjunction with the Jewish Book Council, to offer slide shows at universities, Hadassah events, synagogues and Jewish community centers in places like West Hartford, New Orleans and Houston.

"Frédéric himself is the real strength in publicizing the book," said Christine Boyd, director of marketing for Harper's general books group. Brenner prepared a PowerPoint slide presentation on CD that was distributed to salespeople, and performed slide shows in-house for book club and rights managers. So far, foreign rights have sold in Germany, the U.K., France and the Netherlands (where an English-language version will be published).

Calling Diaspora "one of the most important books I have published in 35 years," Friedman said she expects it to achieve the long-lasting popularity of universal photography books like The Family of Man. That title, based on a show that Edward Steichen curated for the Museum of Modern Art, has been in print continuously since it was first published in 1955. Said Friedman, "This is not necessarily the book that is going to make our fortune, but everybody's in it for the long haul. We will continue to sell and promote Diaspora for a long time."

—with reporting by Sarah F. Gold