This question bugged me for a while: is an image an ultimate goal and result of creativity or execution and presentation are important as well? And I came to conclusion that execution and presentation are important.
Let’s talk about paintings for example. I think of paintings not only as two dimensional images. There is a third dimension – brush strokes. They capture artist hand motion and his emotions as much as color, composition or subject. When I look at those strokes I can imagine how the artist hand was moving, and that passes artist emotions to me. The brush strokes can be powerful, forceful, angry or they can be casual, light and soft. A reproduction of a painting can have accurate representation of an image but does not capture the brush strokes as well and in some sense erasing that third dimension.
I grew up in a fairly provincial town seeing only reproductions of paintings in books. Seeing them later in museums changed my perception of them completely. I remember how seeing one of van Gogh’s self-portraits in Seattle Art Museum (in a temporary exhibition) made unforgettable impression on me. Much of van Gogh’s face was not painted. Either skin-toned paper was used or paper was covered with skin-toned paint. And then on top of that van Gogh painted his beard, eyes, hair. It was like the face was already in that skin-toned paper, van Gogh just helped me to see it in a few brush strokes. No reproduction has been able to show that.
Now the paintbrush strokes can be meaningless too. For example, I have some cheap painting hanging in my house. It may have been produced by printing on canvas first and then laying paint on top to make it look like painting, the paintbrush strokes just random and “don’t fit”. That’s kind of example of good image bad painting. Another example of good image and good painting but where strokes don’t mean much [to me] is Pointillism which branched off Impressionism. In paintings that I’ve seen in museum executed with this technique application of dots looks very mechanical. While technique is interesting it did not give enough freedom to artist hand.
Same goes to photography but in photography it is a matter of technology and not directly related to us. Platinum-palladium print has incredible tonal range and looks like the image is in paper, where print from inkjet printer looks like image is coated on top of paper, like a polaroid emulsion transfer (in some sense). All that is left to us is to choose what matches what we want the best. And don’t get me even started on paper, I have ton of paper samples at home and I just enjoy looking at them and feeling their texture.
Is this important to most of people? No. Paintings are not much of importance either. And even famous ones. Have you been to Musée du Louvre and saw Mona Lisa? Have you looked at the crowd? How many people were looking at the painting and how many were actually with their backs toward the painting taking infamous “hey, I’m 10 feet from Mona Lisa painting” photo? And using flash despite all “no flash” signs? I like this statistic from Wikipedia: “Visitors generally spend about 15 seconds viewing the Mona Lisa.” Is it really worth only 15 seconds? (Granted it may have lost its value as painting and has become something else. Sadly.)
So what can we photographers do? We can do our best explaining this and teaching everyone to see this. Even if the rest think we are a bit crazy.