Gene Altman was born in Chicago in 1941. He attended Harvard College, where he majored in Far Eastern Languages and Literature.

His interest in photography was sparked after he came across the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Dorthea Lange. Cartier-Bresson, now recognized as the father of street photography, brilliantly wove his human subjects into the larger canvas of his compositions. Dorthea Lange's depression-era images of migrant farm workers focused on the depth of emotion reflected on their faces. Gene aspired to integrate both of these elements into his photographs.

Gene graduated from Stanford Medical School. He completed his psychiatry residency and practiced clinical and forensic psychiatry in Hawaii for 42 years. He has also written poetry and short fiction. He lives with his wife, Toni, in Treasure Island, Florida.