I recently had the pleasure of attending an exhibition of Richard Avedon fashion photographs at the International Center of Photography in New York City. The bulk of them were black and white prints, the smallest of which were approximately 16x20-inches in size. Some were twice that size and one, showcased in an exterior window, was at least eight feet high.
Needless to say, when you're looking at prints that large, especially images shot back in 1947, using older emulsions, the film grain was obvious. Pixel peepers would be horrified. How could anyone calling himself a professional use such inferior equipment? How could he produce prints with so much obvious "noise?" Who in their right mind would want to display them, much less buy them?
Anyone who can recognize a beautiful photograph produced by a master, that's who. Who gives a damn about grain (or noise) when you're looking at classic photographs of beautiful women, beautifully posed and lit, wearing beautiful clothes in beautifully atmospheric locations? Anyone who does is the same sort of person who would go to a fine restaurant and pay more attention to the plates than the meal.
Don't get me wrong: I strive for technical excellence as much as the next guy and I have little tolerance for photographers who try to pass off laziness and poor technique as "art." What I'm saying is that unless you've got an image worth looking at, all the technical excellence in the world can't save it--but when you do have a strong image, minor issues such as film grain become moot. Viewers either won't notice or won't care. And why should they?
So if you ever find yourself getting too obsessed over what camera has the lowest noise at ridiculously high ISOs or which lens has the flattest field or the best MTF, I offer a humble suggestion: Turn off the computer, get out of the house, visit a museum or gallery at look at some real photographs produced by real photographers. You may find it an eye- and mind-opening experience.