Ben Gelman was born on November 1, 1920 to Arthur and Pauline (Reichstein) Gell-Mann in New York City. He graduated Theodore Roosevelt High School at age 14. As a young man Gelman was an outdoor and bird watching enthusiast, who was mentored by ornithologist Roger Tory Peterson. His passion for ornithology and bird watching continued throughout his life. At age 16 he enrolled in City College and became a commercial photographer at age 18.
Gelman served as first lieutenant in the U. S. Army Air Corps during World War II as a photograph interpreter, intelligence staff officer, and aerial photographer in North Africa and Italy. After the war he returned to Manhattan and studied at the School of Modern Photography. He married Virginia Lee Smith on December 16, 1947 and had a son, Roger, born in 1953.
The Gelman family moved to Carbondale, Illinois in 1956 where Ben began a career at the Southern Illinoisan newspaper as a photographer. In the 1960s he primarily reported on Southern Illinois University news, and his reporting on a financial scandal surrounding the construction of the Stone House won him a Pulitzer Prize nomination. Gelman became regional editor in 1970 and the Sunday news editor in 1976. He retired from the Southern Illinoisan in 1982. Gelman then worked for Southern Illinois University as public information specialist in University Relations, editor of campus newsletter SIUCourier, and wrote for the alumni magazine. He retired from SIU in 1996 and died on July 21, 2007.
Ben Gelman won several awards and honors throughout his life including: the Lindell Sturgis Award from the SIU Board of Trustees, the Service to Southern Award from the Jackson County Chapter of the SIU Alumni Association, the Delta Award from the Friends of Morris Library, the Service to Education Award from the Educational Council of 100 and the Conservationist of the Year Award from the Southern Illinois Audubon Society. He was awarded a first place award from the Illinois Associated Press for a photograph of the 1957 tornado in Jackson County, and his photographs have also appeared in Time and other magazines.