The Nathan Cohen Photo Fallacy
This post sets forth the Nathan Cohen Photo Fallacy without offering rigorous scientific proof.1 I believe the argument to be, nonetheless, sufficiently compelling to significantly shift how one views Leonard Cohen’s father, Nathan Cohen.
The Nathan Cohen Photo Fallacy Thesis: The perception of Leonard Cohen’s father, Nathan Cohen, held by fans, journalists, and scholars has been significantly and unconsciously skewed by a single photo.
This notion hangs on three postulates:
1. Our assessment of a person’s character is significantly affected by the appearance of that person. Social perception studies repeatedly and consistently demonstrate that we intuitively form impressions of and make inferences about other people largely, albeit not exclusively, from their physical presentation.2 For example, facial appearance has been shown to reliably predict
- Whom we choose to help, hire, or date
- Criminal justice decisions
- Evaluations about which members of a group are more outgoing, socially competent, sexually responsive, and intelligent
- Assessments of health and power
It is worth noting that this effect takes place whether an individual’s appearance is viewed in person or in a photo. Most social perception studies, in fact, involve the use of photographs rather than live models.
2. For an overwhelming majority of today’s Leonard Cohen fans as well as contemporary scholars, journalists, and authors who write about the Canadian singer-songwriter (anyone, in other words, other than family and friends who can conjure up a mental picture of Leonard Cohen’s father), that image is based on this photograph.
This photo was published in Ira Nadel’s 1996 book, Various Positions,3 considered the authoritative Leonard Cohen biography in English until challenged by the publication in 2012 of I’m Your Man by Sylvie Simmons. More importantly, it has been, as recently as a few months ago, the only photo of Nathan Cohen easily accessible online. Even today, a Google Image Search for “Leonard Cohen’s father” brings up that same photo as the first two hits. Of the next 200+ hits, only two are actually photos of Nathan Cohen (the remainder are false positives), both of which I posted in July 2014.
In an incredibly unscientific survey, I emailed five Cohen fans, asking them if they were aware of a photo or photos of Leonard Cohen’s father. If they did, they were also asked to indicate where they had seen the photo(s). Each of the five responded within minutes with a copy or a link to the above photo.
3. This photo makes Nathan Cohen seem cold, detached, and aloof. In a second incredibly unscientific survey, I asked a dozen acquaintances, half of whom were knowledgeable Cohen fans who recognized the photo of Leonard Cohen’s father and half of whom were not fans and probably wouldn’t recognize a photo of Leonard Cohen, let alone one of his father, to list the characteristics of the man pictured (Nathan Cohen). The resulting lists of characteristics were remarkably similar, regardless of whether they were compiled by someone who did or did not recognize the man in the photo as Nathan Cohen.
Characteristics that were frequently mentioned included formal, stuffy, stern, strict, unemotional, distant, firm but fair, aloof, detached, standoffish, reserved, businesslike, severe, rational, and precise.
At this point, I should clarify that I am not making the claim that the impression given by photo is necessarily inaccurate. Indeed, it is possible that Nathan Cohen’s traits were coincident with those attributed to his photo: that he was, in fact, formal, stuffy, stern, … I contend only that the photo under consideration is so pervasive and evokes such strong interpretations that it has inevitably had an impact on how we think of Nathan Cohen. To recognize the significance of this idea, let me introduce you to …
The Other Nathan Cohen
Try this experiment:
First, look at that photo of Nathan Cohen from Nadel’s book. Now, imagine how this guy would appear if you met him with his 7 year old child, Leonard. (Your knowledge or lack of knowledge about Nathan Cohen and relationship with his son is irrelevant to this exercise.)
OK, time’s up. Did you picture something like this?
If so, congrats, you smug rascal you. Now, take another glance at that photo of Nathan Cohen from Nadel’s book and imagine how this guy would look if you met him with his son, Leonard, at three or four years old.
Is this what you envisioned?
The key question, of course, is, do you come up with the same behavioral profile for the Nathan Cohen whose photo appears in Nadel’s book and the Nathan Cohen pictured with his kid on the beach? Is the Nathan Cohen in the beach photo formal, stuffy, stern, strict, unemotional, distant, firm but fair, aloof, detached, standoffish, reserved, businesslike, severe, rational, and precise?
How about the Nathan Cohen being gazed upon adoringly by Leonard Cohen’s sister, Esther?
Or these Nathan Cohens?
Again, neither the photo of a stern-looking Nathan Cohen from Nadel’s biography nor the photos of a friendlier-looking Nathan Cohen I’ve posted can be labeled the “true” picture of Nathan Cohen.
My point is simply that our impressions of Nathan Cohen have been, at least in part, based on his stuffy appearance in what was – until recently – the only readily available photo of him. Intellectual honesty demands awareness that we have inevitably made inferences and attributed traits to him from that image. These other photos are a means of spotlighting that fact, which, in turn, promotes a reassessment – hopefully one less skewed by the historical accident of which photo survived and was selected for publication – of the kind of man Leonard Cohen’s father was.4
Credit Due Department: All photos other than the shot from Nadel’s book and the picture of Nathan Cohen and the bull are images contributed by Maarten Massa. The picture of Nathan Cohen and the bull is from Leonard Cohen’s personal collection, in the UK edition of I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen by Sylvie Simmons (Jonathan Cape, Nov 1 2012). Its photographer, date, and location are unknown.
- To those readers who find this approach suspect, be assured I am prepared to perform the necessary research and studies immediately upon receiving your certified check funding the project. [↩]
- Rather than list dozens of these studies, I offer one often-cited, representative paper: Social Psychological Face Perception: Why Appearance Matters by Leslie A. Zebrowitz and Joann M. Montepare (Soc Personal Psychol Compass. May 1, 2008 [↩]
- It is the photo-portrait that hangs in Leonard Cohen’s childhood bedroom in Montreal. [↩]
- And this is one reason why I post those – what did that skeptic call them … oh, yes, – that’s why I post those “goofy family photos” on my sites. [↩]