I think that this thread goes to the heart of the question: what is it that makes B&W photography special? What is there about it that speaks to people? Because it does speak, in a special way.
Maybe the unseen and unknown is this: it’s the light. I’ve had discussions, some heated, both here and over at ph*t*.net, about the quality of light. Many people express the opinion that there is no “good” or “bad” light. I heartily disagree. My favorite prints are the same ones that friends and family like, and are the same ones that have sold the best. The common denominator: they were taken in beautiful light, and I got lucky and managed to translate it first to the film, then to the paper.
I hate to always go back to old Ansel, but he said it well: “I was suddenly arrested in the long crunching path up the ridge by an exceedingly pointed awareness of the light.... I saw more clearly than I have ever seen before or since the minute detail of the grasses, the clusters of sand shifting in the wind, the small flotsam of the forest, the motion of the high clouds streaming above the peaks."
I think that in those moments of light, something of the Divine is revealed to us, and if we are technically adept and/or lucky, that moment can continue to speak to us from a print hanging on a wall.
So I’m fine with either a “pretty picture”, or one of paint peeling off a plaster wall. Either one has the potential to reveal the unseen and unknown. As I posted previously, though, I think that this medium that we are using, i.e. viewing a scanned and compressed digital approximation, on a computer monitor, makes it tough to really “see” what is going on in a print.
Also: Ed, I totally agree with you about the worry of being “derivative.” That has to be the most useless, self-defeating path that an artist can go down. For crying out loud, blues musicians have been using the same three chords for decades. Yet I heard a new Charlie Musselwhite song the other day, with those same chords, yet it was fresh and original.
What a liberating thought: every photograph is different, indeed has to be different.