Going back to its origins in the 19th Century, photography's purpose was to record reality. Because of that, artists with paint abandoned their efforts to make their pictures look real and Impressionism was born, followed by countless art movements in the 20th Century. Photography as art had it's own battles in this regard, pitting those who made more"Impressionistic" photographs, with soft focus and dream-like images versus those who wanted everything in sharp focus and a more literal interpretation of reality. The use of chemical films and darkroom limited photographers in their quest for venturing very far beyond reality, but the digital age has changed that completely. Thanks to digital recording devices and processing, photography can venture as far into the realm of fantasy as any other art form. It has been said that with Photoshop, you can create anything out of anything, and that is literally true. At its most fantastically creative, photography can be looked upon as collecting groups of pixels to be used to create images on the computer. Such creations are as valid as art as any other art form.
My purpose in photography isn't in that direction, however. I am more interested in portraying the world as I see it. Because I am human, my viewing of a scene will be colored by my emotional response to it, so I will make decisions about composition, focus, angle of view, color balance and contrast based on my interpretation. However, for me, a photograph should at least present the illusion of reality, and if I accomplish my goal, the viewer will see my photographs as believable, something they would see if they were there. Beyond that, if I am being creative at all, it is in my "seeing" what is there in a more purposeful way than someone who might be next to me and yet not even noticing what is before him. One of the benefits of photography for me is that it gets me out at times of the day and times of the year looking for the best light. If I didn't have the purpose of photography to drive me, I wouldn't be there at 5 in the morning waiting for the sun to rise, or experiencing much of the quiet beauty of Winter. In short, photography benefits my spirit. So there, I admit it is a selfish pursuit.
Getting back to the "reality thing," photography, in a real sense is never reality and never was. Black and white photography can't be looked upon as real because that isn't the way we see. Also, our eyes and brain allow us to see in ways that cameras cannot. We can change our focus so fast it seems that we have everything in focus, even when we don't. Our perception of color and contrast can differ a lot from our photographic recording tools. So, our perception of reality can vary with our age, experience, physical and mental attributes we carry with us. Thanks to the digital darkroom, we can finally control our photographic images so that they can much more closely mimic what we "see" and not be constrained by the physical limitations of the film camera and chemical darkroom. When I used 6x7 Fuji Velvia film and had it printed on Cibachrome paper, I had really no control over the contrast (it was always very high) or color balance of my prints. Now, with Lightroom as a photo editing program, I can make photos look much more like my impression of a scene. So, the digital darkroom has been a benefit to all in art photography, from those who are creating something totally new to those of us who just want their photographs to look as they view a scene, allowing for a more personal interpretation.