Mark Montue is watching his friend Trae Triplett in amused awe as Triplett details the highlights of his fledgling photography career. A student at L.A. City College, Triplett bubbles: "I just did a piece for One West Magazine ... and I have my brand new camera, a Nikon D610, my first full-frame camera!" He spreads his hands wide. "I probably have 50 celebrities in my portfolio. I've covered rock bands at the Whisky, Roxy, House of Blues, Foundation Room, Viper Room."
He wolfs down a few more bites of his sugar-saturated breakfast at Syrup downtown and declares: "Getting the work is easy! Getting paid is trickier!"
Both 40-something military vets, Triplett and Montue met after finding themselves unemployed - and homeless - in L.A.
Montue, the more solemn of the pair, moved here from the Washington, D.C., area after getting fired in 2009 from his longtime job at an auto parts store. Unemployment cost him his apartment, with its at-home photo lab. "I said to myself, 'Let me head West and see what I can do.' And it was a great move."
Triplett, meanwhile, did two stints in the Navy, then became a trucker. He quit his trucking job in Florida to be near his daughter in Southern California, but the girl's mom took off with her. He found himself alone, on the street, unable to get rehired amidst the recession.
One day, as both men killed time at the Weingart Center on Skid Row watching TV, Triplett says, "We just started talking and realized we'd both been in the military, we'd been in Virginia, and had a love of photography."
Impressed that Triplett had landed several red-carpet photo jobs, Montue introduced his new friend to Veterans in Photography, a hobbyist-oriented outfit on Skid Row that offers a peaceful space to get creative.
Cameras in hand, they traipsed around the grubby eastern flank of downtown, documenting its denizens. It wasn't long before they were showing their work to the neighborhood's trendy loft dwellers and landing glitzy photo assignments - not to mention dozens of invites to glamour events. Their up-from-ashes story spread, and last summer LACC's Collegian Times profiled them under the headline, "Vets Shoot for the Stars."
Montue chuckles about his 15 minutes of fame. "My original idea was to join the paparazzi and get $5,000 pictures, but I found out it's not for me - violating people like that. Then Trae took me to my first red-carpet event" - at since-shuttered Naya. From that moment, he says, life "has been really exciting."
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The two pals have very different dreams. Triplett is angling for cultural, fashion and music assignments, while Montue wants to produce video and photo projects for charity organizations trying to reach out to children. But they support each other and remain close friends.
"If I could somehow be an example to kids of how far you could go, that would be my dream," Montue says.
Triplett pats his friend's shoulder encouragingly. He has a tiny downtown apartment, while Montue is still in a transitional housing program. But Triplett will never forget his lonely nights, "choosing a good spot to sleep, like this real cool spot on top of a roof near Sunset and Western. You could look out and see everything. I'd lay on my back and see the stars and think, 'I'm in L.A.'?"