I agree with your ruminations, Chris. I've been a people photographer from the beginning, which was in Korea sixty years ago. I find extremely tedious the stuff posted here and displayed in "art fairs" that's merely pretty or merely documentary. There's a place for merely pretty, of course, but it's in decoration, not in serious art, and there's a place for documentation, but it's in newspapers and magazines. In the end, as I've said ad infinitum, what makes a great picture is the transcendental experience you get when you look at it.
What does that mean? My New Oxford American says "transcendental" is "Of or relating to a spiritual or nonphysical realm. . ." In other words, if you can describe the experience in words, it's not transcendental. I think that nature in the raw can give you that kind of experience. I've had it many times hiking in the mountains. But I've never seen a photograph of a landscape, a flower, a bird, or any part of nature that's given me that kind of experience, though I've seen paintings of landscapes that do. On the other hand, the Roy DeCarava photograph I mentioned earlier does give me that kind of experience. The picture is the reverse of pretty, and the juxtaposition of the kid in the gutter with the boarded-up buildings behind him makes it clear that this is his world -- his environment, from which he's not likely to escape. What comes across isn't pity, though, it's something that goes far beyond that. This is the kind of photograph upon which a photographer can hang his reputation, and you get this kind of photograph only when it involves people.
Of course none of this is to say that it isn't pleasant to look at all sorts of pictures, even landscapes and documentary shots, but that's not the same thing as being whopped in the soul by a work of art.
Oh. . . and equipment has zilch to do with it.