Interesting discussion. In my opinion, the camera is a scientific tool for capturing images of reality that closely correspond with what we actually saw, and sometimes what we are not able to see.
Long before the chemical processes were developed to a stage where it was possible to get an imprint of the light passing through the lens, or the pinhole, we had cameras without film or 'light-sensitive material', called 'camera obscura' which literally means 'darkened chamber (or room)', from the Latin.
In the attached Wikipedia article it is claimed that the Camera Obscura in concept goes back to the days of Aristotle and the ancient Chinese.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Camera_obscura
Apparently, during the Renaissance when the quality of lenses was beginning to improve, the Camera Obscura was sometimes used with a lens in place of a pinhole, and sometimes mirrors were used to invert the image the right way up, which enabled artists of the day to produce marvelously detailed and realistic paintings, by projecting an image onto the canvas of what they wanted to paint, and tracing with pen or brush an outline of those elements in the scene. This enabled them get the perspective, shape and size of objects in their painting looking just as the eye sees them, and in so doing astound the viewer with their great skill.
It's understandable that such artists in those days would have been reluctant to reveal the secret of their technique. They might be accused of cheating, or they might even get into trouble with the religious authorities of the day. We all know what happened to Galileo.
It is therefore not surprising that artists continued to use the camera as a tool, as the camera became more sophisticated. Towards the end of the 19th century, and early 20th century, many artists despaired at the ease with which a camera could accurately capture an image which might take them days or weeks to paint.
It's no wonder that non-realistic, semi-abstract and fully-abstract painting styles began to take off, such as Impressionism, Cubism, Surrealism and so on. Why attempt to compete with the camera?
On the other hand, certain artists decided to apply their artistic skills to using the camera as a tool, together with the darkroom processing techniques that were available, and techniques which they could invent themselves, in place of the paint brush (which is also a tool), and thus was born the distinction between the 'fine art' photo and the 'point & shoot' snapshot, although in reality it's not a situation of either/or. There's a whole range of photographic styles. Henri Cartier Bresson considered himself to be a photographic journalist, capturing a meaningful moment in time, then handing the film over to others for processing.
In a sense, one could argue that the use of the camera to create so called 'works of art' is a trivial use of an amazing technology. The most significant use of the camera (in its various forms), which is of great assistance and benefit for mankind, is in its scientific applications. Where would modern medicine or astronomy be without 'imaging devices'?
The fact that such imaging devices can be turned into popular tools for entertainment purposes provides an increased economic basis for the development of better sensors and lenses.
In my view, it is the phenomenal capability of modern cameras to capture realistic, high resolution and wide dynamic-range images that is of great fascination for many of us, regardless of any arty-farty considerations.
Consider the following attached image as an example. This could be considered basically a snapshot. It was taken in a crowded part of the city in the early evening during a Christmas celebration and prior to a show. These two girls sitting on the steps, looked rather unusual and caught my attention. I took a quick shot, unobtrusively, as I walked by. The camera was the D800E with 24-120/F4 zoom lens which I'd set at 92mm for the shot. The ISO was preset at ISO 200 and the shutter speed at 1/200th. The shot was underexposed by 2.6 stops. An ETTR exposure would have required an ISO of 1250, but that would not have produced a noticeably cleaner or sharper image, in my experience.
Now, when processing this image, I noticed a few aspects of the scene which had not been apparent to me as I'd framed the shot. I could see that one of the girls had some sort of tattoo on her legs, but I couldn't see the details. I could see that the other girl had something in her hand, which I thought at the time was probably and iPhone, but wasn't sure.
If I'd been using 35mm film instead of a modern DSLR, I'd have been none the wiser regarding these details, and the image would have been of less significance to me as a result.
However, after processing the shot, and being able to see clearly what one girl had in her hand, which is a cigarette and a brochure with the words, 'Smoking Causes Heart Disease', and being able to see clearly the wording on the tattoo on the other girl, 'Follow the White Rabbit', the image took on new dimensions of meaning for me.
One girl is apparently concerned about her smoking habit, and she should be.
The other girl has a very seductive tattoo in an eye-catching location, the white rabbit of course being a mystical figure that leads one into a hole of psychological discovery.
Three cheers for high-resolution cameras.