Stan B. has it nailed in the "Are You Real?" comments. Photography is a big house with many rooms. There are always going to be all sorts of people within it doing all sorts of things.
Making highly mannered, picturesque quasi-illustrations by overprocessing heavily is nothing new. Although it requires work and expertise, in some important ways it's a lot easier than taking an original photograph. Because when you're photographing a cliché, you have a guide: your pictorial notions of what the photograph should look like saves you from, well, deciding/discovering what the photograph might look like. And not knowing in advance can feel almost physically uncomfortable. Why risk failure?
Let's say you're setting out to make a picture of an American flag. (Just as a simple example.) You choose your mode (ironic, reverent, whatever), and think of all the other renditions of the subject you've seen in that mode, and you set out to emulate them. You've already got a load of ideas in your head about what you "need" to make your picture. Then you find or create your subject, the subject becomes the pretext, you photograph it the way you're supposed to, and then you go to work gussying it up: jack up the color or tone it down, make the light glowy or harsh, whatever suits your preconceived ideas and your agenda and the conventions of whatever style you've chosen.
To really make a photograph of a flag, you'd have to go out into the world and find flags where they fly. How do people use them, where do you see them, what do they mean? If you're open to discovering these things, rather than dictating them aforethought, you stand a chance to find out something new.
And then every time you'd find something that interested you, you'd do your best to explore it with the camera...trying different angles, seeing it in different light, maybe asking for permission for access. These would variously succeed or fail, as happens with this craft. Situations that seemed so promising when you encountered them would obstinately let you down; "nothing" exposures you made as an afterthought might somehow just work out.
Gradually, your own concerns would emerge from what you, personally, respond to. The work would begin to resonate with your own "genius," in the sense of that mysterious thing that makes you you. If you dislike patriotic clichés, you'd do an about-face from that kind of image. If you found your respect for the flag's symbolism deepening, you might gravitate naturally toward heroic or respectful interpretations. But after a certain amount of work, you can't really sustain adequate energy for a mode that doesn't appeal to you; and you'll naturally begin to gravitate toward whatever you find gratifying, fascinating, or important.
Along the way you'd take many "perfect" images of flags for which you know unsophisticated viewers would reward you with praise. You'd take pictures that could be dressed up into trite, hackneyed photo-illustrations if you had the patience to follow all the Photoshop recipes. And of course you'd discard those. After photographing dozens of flags over weeks or months, you'd see your own personal "take" on the subject beginning to emerge, and you'd notice that among all your attempts, you're getting a few that seem to have...something more. Some kind of vibe or mystery or "punctum" or quirkiness that somehow makes them vibrate for you, makes them rich and good to look at. You find there are a few you can go back to again and again, and enjoy looking at more each time you see them.
You work and work to edit. Pictures you were inordinately proud of after you made them fall away; pictures that didn't grab you at first won't go away. You shuffle and consider and juggle and look and look and look and look.
Eventually, you've made a photograph of a flag. And maybe no one will say "nice capture!", and maybe no one will buy a print for $40 at a fair, and maybe your relatives will say politely, "Hmm, now, why did you photograph it that way?" But you'll love it, and never tire of looking at it, and every now and then it will knock somebody's socks off, just take the top of their head clean off*. And you've made a photograph.
And that's hard, very hard. Don't mind all the people who don't care to go to the effort; who can blame them? Photography is difficult.
*"If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way?" —Emily Dickinson
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Featured Comments from:
Polly: "The difference you describe is similar to what I think of as generative creativity vs. responsive creativity. In generative creativity, you decide what you want to create and then set about bringing it into existence, whereas in responsive creativity, you respond to or interact with what is before you—it's more of a dialog. I think both are legitimate processes, even though I personally am firmly in the responsive category myself."
Mike replies: After reading your comment it occurred to me that some people would turn this post on its head. They would say that some people just go out and take lots of pictures over a period of time without having a clear idea of what they want and then find one that works, whereas what they love and want is the finish and technical perfection, the sharpness and the colors etc.. They look at what I would consider a spectacular, once-in-a-blue-moon great shot and say, eh, I can see corner vignetting. I look at the technical perfection that enthuses them and say eh, nothing here but empty slickness. It gets back to the first paragraph....
Dave: "I'm reminded of a passage in a post by Kenneth Jarecke: 'To think that you can come up with a better idea than what the world is offering you (in exchange for a little patience) is foolhardy. Life is more creative than you. Spend some time looking around and it will give you images that you could never imagine yourself.'"